The eight-minute, black-and-white movie clip is a scene from 1933’s “The Belle of New Orleans.” Gloria Mitchell stars as Marie, the glamorous octoroon mistress of a wealthy merchant in antebellum Louisiana, and Vera Stark plays Tilly, the slave who serves as her maid.
But the clip is a fiction even as feature films go. It was shot this month at a Charles Street inn for use in the Lyric Stage Company production of Lynn Nottage’s “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark,” which begins performances Friday.
At the center of this comedy of race and Hollywood is an ambiguous trophy: Vera’s role as Tilly — a rare, yet still stereotypical, movie part for a black actress of the era.
“When we see old films, when we hear old music, there’s a sensibility that’s kind of romanticized and sweet, but also totally neglectful of how awful it was for some in that period of time,” says director Summer L. Williams.
“Meet Vera Stark,” which debuted off-Broadway in 2011, examines how the choices made in the 1930s by Vera (Kami Rushell Smith) echo through her life and career.
The first act finds the lazy, self-dramatizing star Gloria (Hannah Husband) rehearsing her lines for the movie. She gets help — more of a push, actually — from her maid Vera, a would-be actress who wants to play Tilly. Tracing the different routes black actresses took in pursuit of success, the play then follows Vera to her apartment, to a studio back lot, and to a party at Gloria’s, where she’s again working as a maid.
After the film clip, the second act jumps forward a few decades, swinging between Vera’s boozy, volatile appearance on a goofy, bland 1973 talk show, when she’s in her 60s, and a pretentious 2003 academic seminar on her career.
“I was interested in seeing the full journey of Vera Stark across time, and I was interested in seeing how she was treated in various media,” says Nottage, who has created a Web presence for Vera (www.meetverastark.com) that treats the fictional actress as real. “It’s important to me that it not be a marketing tool but a storytelling tool,” the playwright says.
Nottage won a Pulitzer Prize in 2009 for “Ruined,” her exploration of the often brutal lives of women in the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo. “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark” grew from more mundane roots, as the playwright sat down to watch an old movie on, she thinks, the AMC cable channel.
The film was “Baby Face,” a risqué 1933 Barbara Stanwyck vehicle. But Nottage was struck by Stanwyck’s costar, Theresa Harris, an African-American actress who played the friend and speakeasy co-worker of Stanwyck’s character. In the looser atmosphere that prevailed in Hollywood before enforcement of the Hays Code got serious in 1934, Harris wowed the camera in ways that, Nottage says, black performers were seldom allowed.
The playwright began watching more old movies featuring Harris and other actresses whose skin color consigned them to roles as slaves and maids, sometimes without a character name, sometimes entirely uncredited. (Look up Harris’s bio on imdb.com and it says her nickname was “The Beautiful Maid.”)
“The first time I saw Theresa Harris, I immediately began asking questions,” Nottage says. “Who was she? What was her life like? Where did she come from? What were her dreams, what were her desires? When I sat down to write the play, it was to answer all those questions I had, not just about Theresa Harris but about a whole generation of African-American actresses like her.”
The play, Williams says, examines the challenges that being an artist presents and how actors can find themselves typecast or worse.
“You make the choice artistically to go there in that role,” Williams says, “and someone else will look at that work and judge that work and assign you a sort of title, or say that is the thing you are able to do and that is the only thing you are able to do. Or say what you’ve done is a shame and an embarrassment to your race and therefore you shouldn’t be working.”
Even now, the kinds of roles available to black performers remain a stubborn and contentious issue. “I think we’ve come a long way, and I think we have a ways to go,” says Smith, Lyric Stage’s Vera.
“Personally, as an actress, I’ve played a lot of slaves and a lot of prostitutes and a lot of maids,” she says. “For me it’s really evaluating the play and the role and making sure it’s historically accurate and in context.”
Accurate history can be uncomfortable, too, of course.
“I know that a lot of these images of African-Americans in early films are problematic,” says Nottage. “People do not want to revisit them, but I think it’s interesting to revisit them because of the complexity of the era in which these actors — who in many cases were incredibly talented performers — found themselves making these very compromised choices just to ply their trade.”
Commonwealth Shakespeare Company will offer its popular annual free Shakespeare production on Boston Common a little early this year, with “Two Gentlemen of Verona” running July 6-28. Directed by the company’s artistic director, Steven Maler, the production is inspired by Rat Pack-era Las Vegas. The set designer is Beowulf Boritt, who designed “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” for the company in 2007. Boritt’s Broadway credits include “Grace,” “Rock of Ages,” and “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.” Details: www.commshakes.org.
Gloucester Stage Company will begin its 34th season with the musical “Spring Awakening” (June 20-July 14), directed by company artistic director Eric C. Engel. Also slated are founding artistic director Israel Horovitz’s Gloucester play “North Shore Fish” (July 18-Aug. 4); Kenneth Lonergan’s “This Is Our Youth” (Aug. 8-25); and Alfred Uhry’s “Driving Miss Daisy” (Sept. 5-22), with Lindsay Crouse and Johnny Lee Davenport. Engel will also direct the “Dueling Divas Cabaret” (Aug. 28-Sept. 1) with Mary Callanan, Kerry Dowling, and Kathy St. George. Details and tickets: 978-281-4433 and www.gloucesterstage.com.
Horovitz again: The new Hub Theatre Company of Boston presents his “Lebensraum” Friday through April 14 at the First Church in Boston, 66 Marlborough St. The
company is trying to “lower the barriers between art and audience” with a box-office model in which every ticket for every show all season is pay-what-you-can. In “Lebensraum,” its inaugural production, actors Kevin Paquette, Jaime Carrillo, and Lauren Elias play some 40 characters under the direction of John Geoffrion. The play explores what happens when Germany invites 6 million Jews to resettle there. Details are at www.hubtheatreboston.org.
On the next three Friday nights, the gang at ImprovBoston will finish what some local playwrights could only begin. In the “Playbook” series, performers directed by artistic director emeritus Will Luera will use the first page of unfinished works by local playwrights as the starting point for one-act plays made up on the spot. Friday’s unfinished work comes from James Ferguson, April 5 is by Jeffrey Sweet, and April 12 from Melinda Lopez. Tickets, $18, at www.improvboston.com. ImprovBoston is at 40 Prospect St., Cambridge.