The very title of Lynn Nottage’s “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark’’ makes clear how the rest of the world sees Vera: as an afterthought.
But Vera, an African-American maid in the 1930s, sees herself in an entirely different light. She is aiming at, and planning for, a career on the big screen.
Does she get one? Yes and no.
Between those two poles Nottage has constructed a snappy and inventive satire about racial stereotyping in Hollywood and beyond. The Lyric Stage Company production of “Vera Stark,’’ directed with assurance by Summer L. Williams, employs freewheeling screwball comedy to underscore the bleak historical truth that many people of color have disappeared beneath the masks whites forced them to wear.
In Vera’s case, the disappearance is quite literal: After giving one indelible performance followed by decades of what are described as “demeaning roles in second-rate films,’’ she vanishes in 1973, leaving a trail of academic theories and unanswered questions behind.
As tantalizing as those questions are, and as good as “Vera Stark’’ is, you are nagged afterward by the feeling that Nottage could have dug deeper with this material, landed tougher blows. Her targets are many, including ivory-tower pretension and talk-show vacuity, and her lens is wide, encompassing not just the ’30s and the ’70s but also the 21st century. A tighter focus might have enabled Nottage to avoid the sluggish patches of
Act 1 and deliver a play with fewer laughs but more unsettling force.
But you’re not likely to dwell on that much during the performance at Lyric Stage, where Vera is brought to irresistible life by Kami Rushell Smith, one of Boston’s finest young actresses. Smith was most recently seen holding together, through sheer force of personality, an Underground Railway Theater production of Katori Hall’s lamentable “The Mountaintop.’’ It was the latest evidence that Smith can pretty much carry a show by herself, but in “Vera Stark’’ she doesn’t have to. Williams has surrounded her with a blue-chip cast, most of whom play two roles.
The exceptions are Smith and Hannah Husband, who portrays Gloria Mitchell, the vain and superficial movie star for whom Vera works as a maid. In her dealings with Gloria, Vera is flippant, insouciant, anything but subservient.
As “Vera Stark’’ begins, the two of them are rehearsing a scene from a “Gone With the Wind’’-like Southern epic called “The Belle of New Orleans.’’ Gloria is determined to land the starring role, and Vera’s interest is just as intense: She wants to play the leading lady’s maid. When she tells her roommate, Lottie (a terrific Lyndsay Allyn Cox), also a would-be actress, that the film is sure to feature “cotton and slaves,’’ Lottie’s antennae instantly go up. “Slaves?” she asks eagerly. “With lines?’’
In an amusing scene that reveals Vera does indeed have what it takes to be an actress, she gets a part in the movie by playing into and manipulating the racial assumptions of the arty, Russian-born director Maximillian Von Oster (Gregory Balla). Also angling for roles are Lottie and Anna Mae Simpkins (Kris Sidberry), who is African-American but, to the exasperation of Vera and Lottie, pretending to be South American. The only one who doesn’t seem to have movie-star aspirations is Leroy Barksdale (Terrell Donnell Sledge), a musician working as Von Oster’s chauffeur.
Fast-forward, in Act 2, to 2003, when a symposium called “Rediscovering Vera Stark’’ is being moderated by a filmmaker in a purple bow tie and a green sweater vest, played by Sledge with pitch-perfect pedantry. His guests are a professor of media and gender studies and a journalist who is the proud author of “Interrogating Mammy: The Parenthetical Negro Dilemma.’’ Brows furrowed, they assess the contradictions of Vera’s career, debate whether she was a sellout or a revolutionary subverting the system from within, and speculate about what really happened to her.
We see Vera’s final interview, a 1973 appearance on a talk show hosted by the ultra-bland Brad Donovan (Kelby T. Akin). Vera banters saucily with Brad’s other guest, a British rock star (Balla, in a hilarious cross between Mick Jagger and Austin Powers), but the mood changes dramatically when Brad orchestrates an on-air reunion with Gloria.
Kudos to Williams and her creative team for the agility with which “Vera Stark’’ spans eras. Set designer David Towlun evokes the ’30s with a few languorous touches: tiger-striped armchairs, a crescent-shaped bar, a divan just right for a melodramatic diva to lounge upon. In Act 2, Towlun proves equally adept in summoning the cheesy aura, complete with rainbow-colored curtains, of ’70s daytime talk shows of the Mike Douglas, Merv Griffin ilk. Costume designer Tyler Kinney also does stellar work, from Gloria’s form-fitting, fire-engine-red 1930s evening gown to Vera’s billowing, multicolored ’70s ensemble. And the production’s film designer, Johnathan Carr, captures the feel of old-style Hollywood movies in a scene from “The Belle of New Orleans,’’ which we see onscreen.
In those few minutes, Smith illustrates why Vera’s performance would still be remembered so many years later. Whatever the time period, the ever-present question is: Who was Vera Stark? No easy answers to that one in Nottage’s play, but whoever she was, she was no afterthought.