The Unicorn Theatre ends its 40th season on a high note with By the Way, Meet Vera Stark. The play's fresh-faced script, from Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright Lynn Nottage, wrings guilty laughs from flawed film representations of African-Americans during the Great Depression.
The play focuses on the relationship between vain film starlet Gloria Mitchell (portrayed by Katie Karel), "America's Sweetie Pie," and her maid, Vera Stark (Dianne Yvette), herself an aspiring actress. Both are hoping for a part in The Belle of New Orleans, a Gone With the Wind–like Southern epic about a "beautiful octaroon" hiding her heritage from the man she loves. Gloria is desperate for the lead. Vera longs for the part of Tillie, the lead's slave maid.
Vera's roommates, more acting hopefuls, court fame in their own ways. Lottie (Donette Coleman) packs on the pounds to be cast in maternal roles. Anna Mae (Emily Shackelford) counts on her light skin and straight hair to help her pass as a Brazilian sexpot, and her "exotic" faux accent earns the affections of Belle director Maxmillian Von Oster (played earnestly — and with a Pavel Chekov accent — by Justin Speer).
A booze-soaked party turned audition ensues, and Vera and Lottie shuffle stoop-backed across the stage, hum spirituals and concoct tragic Mississippi back stories to give Von Oster the "real Negro" he's looking to cast. It's a fantastically funny scene, but the laughs catch in your throat. Their slapstick is the only way that Vera and Lottie know to earn the director's attention, and Von Oster's oblivious praise of their "authenticity" gives the satire another barb.
But not all of Nottage's characters are as willing to humor Hollywood. Leroy (Tosin Morohunfola), a composer who courts Vera, is less than thrilled with the role she covets. "It was hard enough getting free the first damn time," he argues, urging her to wait for more dignified parts.
Director Missy Koonce keeps the comedy fast-paced, dialing up the play's stylized elements with old Hollywood title projections and a "that's all, folks" spotlight to end each scene, zooming in on a single character's face as that person mugs for an imaginary camera.
The Unicorn's casting is as sharp as ever, and Morohunfola leads a talented cast with his commanding performances as both Leroy Barksdale and, in Act 2, modern academic Herb Forrester. Morohunfola gives each character a distinct palette of gestures and vocal tics, and his commitment and confidence drive each scene in which he appears.
Katie Karel and Dianne Yvette are also strong, picking up steam as the show develops. Last Sunday's performance got off to a bit of a rocky start, with some unfocused energy and unmotivated blocking, but Yvette and Karel soon found their stride, falling into an easy rhythm.
Act 2 soars into the future with a split-screen structure, as an academic panel in 2003 comments on footage (played out live in front of us) from a 1973 TV interview with Vera Stark and film clips from her performance in The Belle of New Orleans. It's a scattered format, one that shouldn't work but does — thanks in part to Koonce's pacing and Nottage's sharp dialogue. (Gary Mosby's handsome set transitions seamlessly from Gloria's glamorous apartment to a 1973 talk-show set, and strong work from sound designer David Kiehl and costume designer Erica Sword helps ease us into each new time period.)
When the modern-day academics launch into both critique and commendation of Vera's performance, we sense echoes of the conflicted reception Hattie McDaniel received for her portrayal of Mammy in Gone With the Wind. The panel participants riff like overly caffeinated grad students on "patriarchal hegemony" and "reductionist terms" as they try to contextualize the film while plugging their own books.
Still, the complaints aren't invalid, and debate remains: Did performances like Hattie McDaniel's help or hinder representations of African-American women in film? Is there any nobility in working within oppressive systems? Is Vera Stark a hero or a coward?
These aren't easy questions, and Nottage resists answering them definitively or demonizing a particular view. If anything, she seems to poke fun at the discussion from all sides, using the panel's increasing obnoxiousness to reveal the inadequacies in retrofitting academic frames to real human problems.
And this is what makes Nottage a standout modern playwright. Vera Stark doesn't end with the sweeping pathos and string chorus of The Belle of New Orleans, and we should be grateful for that. Relationships defy intellectual categorization, and emotion defies express-train shortcuts. Nottage defies convention, and finds honesty — and humanity — along the way.