Wednesday, April 03, 2013

The Lyric Stage Company of Boston Presents the New England Premiere of "By The Way, Meet Vera Stark"


On Sunday, I joined a house full of enthusiastic audience members for the Press Opening of the New England Premiere of "By The Way, Meet Vera Stark," written by Lynn Nottage.  The play is being presented by the Lyric Stage Company of Boston.  The work is written in a complex format, mixing live action scenes from the 1930's and 2003 with film and video clips shot to appear as if they also had been recorded in the 1930's and the 1970's.  The over-arching theme is the "peculiar institution" that was the system that limited the careers of Black actresses in Hollywood, marginalizing them to playing slaves, maids or performers.  In Nottage's nimble hands, the play evokes deep thinking amid the many laughs as the gifted actors and actresses present their own caricatures of caricatures.  I found the play very engaging and moving.
Upon reflection, it strikes me that the theme of the play struck a very personal note, so please allow me a personal side journey before I return to describing the nuts and bolts of this fine production.

In the lobby of the Lyric Stage Company's performance space on Clarendon Street, the company has mounted a photo montage of Black women who acted in Hollywood during the "Pre-Code Era."  As I perused the display, several familiar faces jumped out at me - Josephine Baker, Theresa Harris, Hattie McDaniel, Butterfly McQueen and Ethel Waters.  It was my tangential connection to Ethel Waters that gave me the emotional context for connecting with the substance of this play.  Ethel Waters not only performed in films and on  Broadway, she was an acclaimed singing star on the Harlem Circuit, and made a major impact on the Harlem Renaissance.  One of her co-stars at the Apollo Theater and elsewhere was the singer Frances Austin.  Years later, in the 1950's and 1960's, Frances made her home in my hometown of Newburyport, Massachusetts, where she worked as laundress for a wealthy family.  She also sang in the choir of the Baptist Church that I attended.  I took violin lessons from the woman for whom Frances worked, and I had many opportunities while waiting for my lesson to hang out in the laundry room while Frances would tell me stories of her days in show business.  More than once we combined on a duet version of Ethel Waters' iconic hit: "His Eye Is On The Sparrow." 

So, you see, my personal history with Frances Austin as a "Mammy" figure in my life set me up to resonate with the story of Vera Stark.

The cast members in this play are required to play multiple roles, and they handle them with panache and aplomb.  Kami Rushnell Smith is saucy and memorable as Vera Stark, pushing the boundaries of a character who grows in a number of ways during the arc of the story.  Hannah Husband plays Vera's boss and eventual "co-star," Gloria Mitchell, "America's Little Sweetheart."  She brings just the right combination of melodrama and vulnerability to a role that could have been played as a cartoonish figure, but is much more than that in Husband's capable hands.  Terrell Donnell Sledge is Leroy and Herb, and is believable as both men, who are quite different from one another.  Lyndsay Allyn Cox plays both Lottie and an academic named Carment Levy-Green.  Her performances in both roles are pitch perfect, especially when embodying the author's send-up of a meretricious academic.  She plays her roles with a wonderful stage presence and superciliousness.  Kris Sidberry is hilarious as the chameleon Anna Mae who tries to pass as Latina, and as the dashiki-wearing activist and feminist, Afua Assat Ejobo.  Kelby T. Akin is Mr. Slasvick and Brad Donovan, a TV show host. Gregory Balla is the egotistic film director, Maximillian Von Oster and stoned-out 70's rock musician, Peter Rhys-Davies.  These two men round out a very capable ensemble cast.

left to right - Lyndsay Allyn Cox as Lottie,
Kami Rushnell Smith as Vera Stark,
Kelby T. Akin as Slasvick
Kris Sidberry as Anna Mae

At the end of the day, while offering up hilarious pillorying of the Hollywood system, racial stereotyping, slick TV talk shows, fatuous academic poseurs, and anyone else who might be tempted to hide behind a mask or a false identity, the play asks serious questions.  This is a solidly directed and acted production of an intriguing play.  You have until April 27 to take advantage of your own opportunity to "Meet Vera Stark."



1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'm going to take a stab and guess that this is Al Chase writing. I was looking for info on Frances Austin (whom I,too, knew at First Baptist) and stumbled upon this. Jan Mantarian Moy