One of the hallmarks of almost any production at Theatre Three, one of Dallas' oldest theater companies, is how much time they waste moving furniture between scenes. So often the shifting of sagging sofas and rickety tables in and out of the in-the-round space seems unnecessary. T3's penchant for choosing all the wrong pieces for its scenery is nearly legendary. What's the point of replacing one chipped dining chair for another?
They're at it again in T3's latest, Lynn Nottage's two-act play By the Way, Meet Vera Stark. But besides the long stretches of couch shoving and chair rearranging that slow down the action, this production is burdened by the ill-furnished script itself. Even a good cast with four excellent actresses in the main roles can't salvage Vera Stark from that much heavy lifting.
Yolonda Williams plays the title character, Vera, a black actress who arrives in 1930s Hollywood hoping to be cast in something better than roles of maids and slaves that don't even have last names. The only steady work she can get, however, is serving as the real-life domestic to her old pal from vaudeville, neurotic white actress Gloria Mitchell (Lee Jamison). When Gloria brings home a script for a Jezebel-like costume drama called Belle of New Orleans, Vera spots a part she wants and sets out to land an audition at the studio where Gloria is up for the lead as a glamorous-but-dying "octoroon."
Nottage's plays, even her 2009 Pulitzer winner Ruined, about sexual atrocities during the civil war in the Congo, tend to hang on a ripped-from-the-headlines gimmick. Vera Stark feels like a half-baked idea born from reading too many master's theses about Hollywood's racial stereotypes. Nottage's point about all that is made early in Vera Stark, that moviemakers of the 1930s saw little use for African-Americans unless they could tap dance like Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, play the fool like Stepin Fetchit or serve as substitute onscreen mothers for pretty white starlets the way Hattie ("Mammy") McDaniel did. "Why're we still playin' slaves?" asks Vera's musician friend (Calvin Roberts), who works as a movie director's "Man Friday." "Shucks, it was hard enough gettin' free the first damn time."
The first act of this play is all comedy. Director/designer Bruce Coleman keeps the pace as brisk as the scene shifts allow (really, so much furniture moving). Action flips between Gloria's art deco mansion (filled here with un-deco décor) and the modest apartment Vera shares with a fellow black actress, Lottie (the marvelously funny Stormi Demerson), and a pretty younger actress, Anna Mae (pouty Raven Garcia), whose "high yaller" complexion means she's passing for Brazilian.
Lottie, a sassy realist, has abandoned her own dreams of stardom. "I wasn't gonna throw on a head-rag and play slave," she says. Then she hunches her shoulders and bellows a few mournful bars of "Go Down, Moses." She's surprised to hear that Vera wants to screen test for a mammy character in an antebellum drama. "Slaves? With lines?" asks Lottie.
Vera will get the part in the movie, though the Jewish studio head (played by Paul J. Williams) will also cast Anna Mae, rechristened with a Latino name, in a bigger role.
That part of Vera Stark holds together just fine. It's the second act in which Nottage abandons her comedy set-up and tries to make political statements from a modern, boring academic perspective. If only it were possible to buy a ticket just to Act 1. The second half of this play is so bad, it feels as if another writer hijacked the script and sabotaged it on purpose.
The time jumps to 2003 — from 1933 in the first act — and the setting is a highbrow university colloquium (fancy word for "panel discussion") exploring what went wrong with the now-legendary Vera Stark's career. A lesbian poet (Garcia again, looking like 1960s radical Angela Davis), a snooty "media and gender studies" professor (Demerson) and a nervous moderator (Roberts) jabber about "patriarchal hegemony" and lob questions at each other about whether Vera was "cannibalized by our culture."
After getting to know Vera so well in the first half, now we have to listen to new, duller characters discuss her in the third person. Then comes the real deathblow to the play. Flashbacks!
You know a play is terrible when it resorts to flashbacks. And here they're not done just in three dimensions.
Rewind to 1973, when a TV talk show brings out 70-something Vera (looking not a day older than 1933) to sing from her Las Vegas lounge act. After sudden stardom and critical accolades for Belle of New Orleans, Vera's career never hit greater heights. And she's bitter about it.
This scene is acted out on a platform, with Williams playing the unctuous Merv Griffin-like host (who quickly descends into Jiminy Glick camp). In a This Is Your Life moment, he also brings out faded beauty Gloria Mitchell (Jamison, also looking no older than Act 1 but now sporting a wiglet that gives her a post-Psycho Janet Leigh vibe) for an awkward reunion.
Hitting "pause" on this talk show stuff — yes, the actors upstage do a "freeze frame" — the colloquium members keep interrupting to discuss Vera's life history and remark on the progress of black actors in film.
Oh, it gets worse. Cue the film clips from Belle of New Orleans. Down drops a screen and up comes "movie footage." Does it look like a great old black and white movie? Not for one second. Does it look like someone shot it on a Flipcam and added fake scratches and blips on it via Windows Moviemaker? Not even that good. Is Jamison peering out from a mass of fake blonde curls that might've been snatched off the corpse of Mary Pickford? Most certainly.
So to review: They do a live re-enactment of video from a 1973 TV talk show. Bad imitation of film is done via low-tech video. Two bizarre flashbacks occur during the long second act. And if your head isn't already throbbing from shaking "noooooo," the play ends with yet another flashback, to Vera and Gloria as they were in the 1930s again, revealing the secret that bonded them as sister-actresses.
Meanwhile, in real-time Hollywood, African-American actresses Octavia Spencer and Lupita Nyong'o won their recent Oscars for playing a maid and a slave. Some scene changes take longer than others.