Preview: By the Way, Meet Vera Stark

After 2009's gritty hit Ruined, Lynn Nottage goes lighter.

NOTTAGE INDUSTRY The celebrated dramatist prepares a world premiere.

NOTTAGE INDUSTRY The celebrated dramatist prepares a world premiere. Photograph: Andrea Chu

"I hate panels, I hate talk-backs—I hate all of that shit," says playwright Lynn Nottage with a good-natured chuckle. "I feel like, I just spent two hours telling you what I think with my play, and then I'm going to have to come back out there and reiterate that, and answer questions?"

At least for now, Nottage has rendered the postshow talk-back unnecessary—thanks to By the Way, Meet Vera Stark, now previewing at Second Stage Theatre. In a merciless parody of a pretentious symposium, Nottage has three academics of color vie volubly over the racial, sexual and representational legacy of the fictional title character, a midcentury African-American semistar best known for her turn as a sympathetic slave in a Civil War melodrama called The Belle of New Orleans. Was Vera Stark perpetuating a hoary stereotype or transcending it? Was she a subversive or a sellout? Was she, as a lesbian gender-studies professor puts it, "a profoundly troubled woman attempting to heal"?

The play's screwball first act, set in Hollywood in 1933, deftly dramatizes those questions. An aspiring starlet toiling as a maid for a white star, Vera doesn't seem to have any political agenda. She nabs her plum role mostly by virtue of proximity—plus a bit of pandering. Sanaa Lathan, who portrays Vera, understands her character's decision to pursue a subservient role onscreen. "As Vera says towards the end," Lathan tells us, "people like to point fingers, but would you rather have cleaned toilets and made beds in the real world, or put a costume on to do it?"

This dilemma intrigued Nottage after she happened to catch the breathtakingly cynical 1933 Barbara Stanwyck vehicle Baby Face a few years ago. This gritty movie was made before the Hays Code clamped down on sexual innuendo, as well as realistic depictions of African-Americans—like that of Stanwyck's sidekick, Chico, played by the underappreciated black actor Theresa Harris. Harris's turn would be striking in any era, but it's almost surreal to see her in a meaty role opposite a cinematic icon, in a film from an era when black folks were mostly relegated to walk-ons as maids and butlers.

"Harris is very contemporary, very comfortable—and she's sitting inside the room," says Nottage. "Usually you'd never see a black person sitting in the room with white people; they either sat in the kitchen or on the porch." That "offstage" world is precisely the one Nottage puts onstage in Vera Stark's first act: "You're seeing what happens to the black people once they exit and go back into the kitchen," she explains.

The relatively sunny milieu of the new project seems a radical departure from Nottage's Ruined, which won the 2009 Pulitzer for its depiction of rape as an instrument of war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. But if you look across the playwright's career, Ruined is more the departure; her previous work before that, Fabulation, anatomized the precipitous comic decline of an African-American press agent, and she's always had a streak of irreverent comedy in even her darkest material.

Still, the writer is best known for Ruined. Though a film version starring Oprah Winfrey is in the works, one question that haunts the original production's admirers is why—despite a nearly year-long run at Manhattan Theatre Club's Off Broadway space—did Ruined never transfer to Broadway?

"It's a political play about rape in Congo with an all-black cast," Nottage replies matter-of-factly. "But [not moving to a commercial run] allowed it to go to the regionals and be seen by many more people more quickly. I believe in the urgency of the subject matter, and it should be out there engaging with audiences." She points out that the regional runs have raised money for women's health causes, including $60,000 for Tanzi, a hospital in Congo. "It would seem strangely paradoxical to have this play on Broadway," she muses, "with investors who put in money making money."

That's a heavy social responsibility for any piece of theater to bear. Vera Stark is in part the happy by-product of carrying that weight around. "I wrote Ruined and Vera Stark at the same time," Nottage recalls. "That's just how my brain functions—when I'm dwelling someplace very heavy, I need a release. The great thing about Vera Stark is that my research was watching movies, screwball comedies, so I could literally sit back and relax."

She clearly had fun conjuring an alternative universe: The Second Stage production includes a sizable excerpt from a 35mm film of The Belle of New Orleans, and the site offers the fictional actress's filmography and multimedia about her storied career. Nottage may not relish a talk-back, but she obviously has an appetite for the life her work can have beyond the stage.

By the Way, Meet Vera Stark is at Second Stage Theatre through May 22. See Off Broadway.

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