The Colonial Players are staging a smart, vivid “By The Way Meet Vera Stark” at their theatre in Annapolis. The costumes are pure glam, the set in the first act embodies 1930s Art Deco style, and the pacing is crisp.
The staging by The Colonial Players is pointed, splashy and big-hearted with a cast that fits together like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle.
Vera Stark (Ashley Simon) and Gloria Mitchell (Sarah Wade) are, respectively, a would-be Black actor working as a maid, and a White actor known as America’s little sweetheart, who is trying for a big dramatic part. Set in 1933, pickings are slim for Vera. But as she’s helping Gloria run lines for an audition for “The Belle of the South,” she is hoping that Gloria will put in a word for her for the role of the belle’s maid, Tilly. The first act is all about the Hollywood hustle—it’s fast-paced, crisp and really funny. The stark reality of how actors of color are treated comes through especially in the interactions at Vera’s residence (I assume a boarding house of sorts). Her best friend, Lottie McBride (a gloriously comedic Tracy McCracken, who also plays Carmen Levy-Green in Act 2), is eating to emulate Hattie McDaniel’s figure as she has calculated that would increase her odds of getting hired for an acting gig. McCracken also has a powerhouse of a voice that she uses to tremendous effect. It’s almost another character.
The other resident we meet is Anna Mae Simpkins (Colleen Isaiah, who also plays Afua Assata Ejobo in the second act) who can pass as white. In fact she passes as a Brazilian and is determined to break into the business any way she can.
Anytime these three women are together, the laughter amps up. But the relationship between Vera and Gloria is key. They have known each other since vaudeville days, and something happened that set them on separate branches of the same path. Vera doesn’t hold back with Gloria, but it’s not until Act 2 that we get a sense of how deep their tie is.
And that’s the rub with this show. Act 2 jumps ahead to 2003 where a panel has been convened by a lecturer, Herb Forrester (Joseph T. Smithey, who also plays Leroy Barksdale, a musician in the first act. (He and Vera married we learn, past tense). The panel has two experts on Vera’s legacy in the arts—afua Assata Ejobo, a radical feminist writer, and Carmen Levy-Green, a college professor. A great deal of this act is taken up by a re-enactment of Vera’s last interview in 1973 on a talk show hosted by Brad Donovan (Rick Estberg, who also played the head of the studio, Frederick Slavick, in Act 1). Donovan channels his inner Merv Griffin and it’s a hoot. There is also black-and-white film showing the famous last scene in “The Belle of the South,” where we learn that Gloria got her wish to play the lead and Vera the maid—and it made their careers. The film work by Julien Jacques was inspired. It was exactly like watching an old reel-to-reel clip.
But when the play cut away from the 1973 interview to the 2003 panel, it was like reliving the last few years of public discord. It was strident, mean-spirited and the two “experts” were reduced to shouting and posturing. They were solidly entrenched in their positions. It was jarring and maybe too soon given how civility has taken such a hit in this country.
The final cast member is Tom Wyatt. He plays Maxmillian von Oster as the director in Act 1, and Peter Rhys-Davies, a rock star drugged to the eyes, in Act 2. He’s simply marvelous in both roles. He threw himself into two very different characters and appeared to be having the time of his life.
The costumes were designed by Christina McAlpine and Linda Swann, and were glorious. I don’t know where they excavated the plaid double-knit suit for the talk show host, but it was a howl in its own right.
Set designer Edd Miller hit the perfect notes for an art deco feel in Act 1, and the whole couch and chairs ensemble for the Act 2 talk show stage was spot on. Alex Brady designed the lighting, and Ben Cornwall the sound. Director Eleanore Tapscott has a real feel for all three periods—1933, 1973, and 2003—but really shined in capturing the underlying madcap, free-wheeling, hard-drinking era of the big Hollywood studios.
The linchpins of the show are Simon and Wade and I hope they get to collaborate again. There was a real chemistry between them, and even before some of the Act 2 revelations, one sensed an interdependence and a long history between them. In the end we don’t know what happened to Vera Stark after 1973, but as so often happens with people of color and women, their stories are co-opted and made into whatever other people want or need to believe.
So the play is a bit unsettling in that regard. The staging by The Colonial Players is pointed, splashy, and big-hearted with a cast that fits together like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle. “By The Way, Meet Vera Stark” was written by Lynn Nottage and premiered in New York in 2011, before the divisions in the United States had reach such a high-pitch—it seems almost prescient in a way. The play has a lot to say, and this production is worth seeing.
Running Time: Approximately two hours and 20 minutes with a 10-minute intermission.
Show Advisory: Suitable for audiences 16 and over. There is alcohol use, implied drug use, racial stereotyping in the entertainment industry.
“By The Way, Meet Vera Stark” runs through November 13, 2021 in person at The Colonial Players of Annapolis, 108 East Street, Annapolis, MD 21401, 410-268-7373. For more information, please click here. You can also live-stream the production starting October 29, 2021 on Broadway on Demand. Click here to access.