By the Way, Meet Vera Stark

Pulitzer Prize winning and diverse playwright, Lynn Nottage strips away the glitz of 1930s Hollywood with a square punch to the gut and a long hard look at racism in the film industry; and yet, Nottage brings an unexpected biting comedic flair and unmistakable zing to the brilliance of her unforgettable play, By the Way, Meet Vera Stark.The fictional character of Miss Vera Stark gets her soul from the enticingly beautiful, ambitious and talented black actress, Therese Harris, who embarked on an acting career during the days of the Great Depression. Harris became an obvious symbolic figure in the struggle against racial discrimination in the early days of moving pictures, and although she was a busy working actress, Harris was never given the chance to get past the stereotyped role of slave, servant, maid, or “straight man” (to the ones who got the laugh and immediate recognition).By the Way, Meet Vera Stark includes three chronological settings: 1933, 1973, and 2003. Gleefully bursting onto Long Beach Playhouse’s Mainstage, Act I carries the most weight and embraces Vera’s optimistic hopefulness in a slam dunk screwball comedy rich with witty repartee and major league comedic performances.Our heroine, Vera Stark (Adanna Kenlow), fervently pursues her dream of “making it” in Hollywood while she continues to work as a confidant and maid to America’s sweetheart and flaxen-haired starlet, Gloria Mitchell (Sierra Marcks). Mitchell’s glamorous and posh Hollywood apartment is a far cry from the working class digs that Vera shares with her roommates, Lottie (Lotonya Kitchen and talented singer) and Anna Mae (Veronica Simms), also aspiring African-American actresses.Light brown-skinned Anna Mae pretends to be Brazilian to better her chances at “breaking in,” and if it takes dating the director, well, her philosophy is – put on a red hot number and go for it, pra carumba! Lottie, the more resigned of the group, will settle for any role she can get – just as long as she lands a part.There is studio exec Fredrick Slasvick (Skip Blas) who will nix any idea that does not result in a family-friendly film, Gloria’s chauffeur, Leroy (Bryan Allen Taylor) who’s got a thing for Vera, and Director Von Oster (Robert Agiu who wants to make a film with meaning and depth. Act II is a very different vibe. It is 2003 and set in a scholastic-type forum where there is a panel consisting of a moderator and two film authorities. During the discussion, there is a 1973 film clip that clearly demonstrates the older Vera’s frustration in having to talk about the movie she became known for.Who was Vera Stark? What was her relationship with her white glamour star employer? The audience is privy to what made her tick and what made her so interesting. Perhaps the humiliation and shame of any type of discrimination is not that long ago and too close to ignore, but maybe the fact that people of all colors can sit collectively as one and engage in laughter is progress.Vera Stark gives audiences plenty to laugh about, and Director, Gregory Cohen says, “…Let us, as observers, then ignore what she stands for and instead cherish the humor and humanity that surrounds her.” Under Cohen’s fine direction, the entire cast (with most actors portraying dual roles) is dazzling; however, the “knock-it-out-of-the-park” performances are unmistakably Adanna Kenlow in the lead role as Vera Stark in the 1930s, Sierra Marcks as Gloria Mitchell in the 1930s, Latonya Kitchen as Lottie McBride, Veronica Simms as Anna Mae Simpkins/Afua Assata Ejobo, Robert Agiu as Max Von Oster, and Bryan Allen Taylor as Leroy Barksdale. Director: Gregory Cohen; Set Design: Sean Gray; Light Design: Elisheva S. Siegel; Sound Design: Larry Mura; Costume Design: Donna Fritsche; Projection Design: Andrew Vonderschmitt. Long Beach Playhouse 5021 E. Anaheim St, Long Beach, CA 908104. Phone 562-494-1014. The play runs through May 9.

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