At a time when racial tensions seem to be at the forefront of America’s entertainment industry, Black Theatre Ensemble’s newest production could not be any more opportune.
Produced by Taylor Oster (SFS ’17) and directed by Caitlin Ouano (COL ’17), the BTE’s production of “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark,” written by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage, follows 70 years in the life of Vera Stark, a black maid and aspiring actress determined to overcome racial obstacles and achieve her dream of leading on the big screens.
At its heart, “Meet Vera Stark” is heavily concerned with racial biases in the 1930s film industry, which had taken quite a hit as a result of the Great Depression. However, the show’s insightful subject matter is balanced by quite a few comedic moments that help to lighten the overall mood.
Lisette Booty (COL ’17), who plays Vera, stressed her eagerness for the role.
“It was really an important growth factor for me as an actress. I really identify with young Vera,” Booty said.
Booty said she was especially excited for the production in light of recent discussions about Hollywood’s lack of diversity and of actress Viola Davis’ historic win at the Emmys as the first black actress to win the Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama.
“We don’t get a lot of opportunities,” Booty said. “This play is really elevating some of those issues.”
Artistic Director Caroline Clay shared similar enthusiasm.
“I am impressed by the courage of the subject matter,” Clay said. “They’re really getting at the question of what does it mean to be black.”
One of the central conflicts in the play is Vera’s complex relationship with her white boss Gloria, played by Leah Benz (COL ’18), an overly grandiose Hollywood starlet who finds her career in jeopardy as a result of the changing times. The bold contrast between the opportunities afforded to each of the women as a result of race strains the relationship between the two, and as Vera’s ambitions grow, the audience is left guessing as to whether or not Vera will ever be able to leave Gloria’s shadow to make a name of her own.
The second half of the show takes place 40 years later and examines the controversial legacy Vera leaves behind. It leads the viewer to wonder whether she ultimately conformed with the racial confines of brutal 1930s Hollywood or overcame them and set a standard for all black actresses after her.
n contrast to the play’s heaviest moments, there is also some welcome comic relief from an incredible supporting cast, notably scene-stealers Omolade Wey (SFS ’16) and Nona Johnson (COL’17), both of whom play as Vera’s roommates Lottie and Anna. Both Lottie and Anna, like Vera, are aspiring actresses with severely different methods. Lottie is a spunky, no-nonsense seamstress who’s all but given up on making it big. Anna, on the other hand, is a sly and sexy schemer with some unexpected tricks up her sleeve. The duo delivers a number of memorable laugh-out-loud moments, the highlights of many scenes.
Also rounding out the cast are Airton Kamden (COL ‘16), who plays Leroy Barksdale, a sweet-talking trumpet player who quickly takes a liking to Vera, Alec Meguid (COL ’17), who plays Frederick Slasvick, an egotistical, impatient producer who’s mainly concerned with making his studio money and Sofia Bachman (SFS ‘17), who plays Maximillian von Oster, an eccentric, world-renowned playwright whose vision often differs with that of Slasvick. The fabulous chemistry of the cast is what stands out as the show’s true unifier throughout the script’s lightest and heaviest moments.
Overall, “Meet Vera Stark” is a smart and funny look at America in one of its most crucially definitive periods of racial dialogue. The time lapses, though at times slightly awkward, provide an insightful perspective on an issue that continues to haunt the entertainment industry even today.
The show runs through this weekend in Walsh’s Black Box Theater. Friday and Saturday shows start at 8 p.m., and the Sunday matinee begins at 2 p.m. Tickets are $5 for students, $6 dollars for faculty and alumni and $8 for general admission. Those who purchase tickets online will receive an additional 30 percent discount.