A ‘Stark’ View of Racism over the Years in Hollywood

Culture Watch

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News.

‘By the Way, Meet Vera Stark’
Second Stage Theater
305 W. 43rd St.
New York, N.Y.

"I'd rather play a maid than be one."
                          -- Hattie McDaniel

One of the most intriguing stories about racism in America was that of the successful drive to get Hattie McDaniel the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance as Scarlett’s Mammy in ‘Gone with the Wind,’ the 1939 classic about the Civil War. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and black leaders from coast to coast had criticized Hollywood for years because blacks were effectively barred from playing substantial roles in motion pictures. Now, though, they backed off their crusade because the producers of ‘Gone with the Wind’ were lobbying hard for Hattie’s Oscar, which she won. The African American activists won on one front, but lost on another. That’s how it was in that black and white film colony in that black and white America of the 1930s.

That’s how it is in ‘By the Way, Meet Vera Stark,’ a very good but not complete play by Lynn Nottage, who recently won the Pulitzer Prize for her play ‘Ruined.’ Vera Stark is the witty, smart, good looking black maid of white Hollywood star Gloria Mitchell. It is 1933. Vera does everything for Gloria, including worry for her. Vera, played magnificently by Sanaa Lathan, has had bit parts in movies and dreams of playing a maid with lines in the new film ‘The Belle of New Orleans.’. Gloria is searching for yet another mega hit in her lustrous career as the star of that film.

This is two plays. Act I, set in 1933, explores the complicated relationship between Gloria and Vera, plus Vera’s roommates Lottie and Anne Mae. Lottie is a funny, cynical former Vaudeville player and the light skinned Anne Mae is uproarious as she pretends to be white throughout the play. Vera, Anne Mae and Lottie wind up at a party at Gloria’s house that underscores their invisibility in Hollywood. A white producer is very impressed by Vera’s looks and charm. He loves her name. Vera thinks he is going to give her good roles, but he tells her that he might borrow her marvelous name and give it to a white actress. She is stunned.

All of act one, which is very funny, shows the vibrant world of blacks within the larger world of whites in movieland. Nottage’s sharp script shows the broad thick line between their lives and the lives of white Americans. All they can hope for is to play maids, the bottom of the acting food chain. Act one is superb.

The beginning of act two is fantastic. The producers made and show on a huge screen a black and white movie scene with Gloria and Vera in the ‘The Belle of New Orleans,’ a huge success that has remained popular for decades. The film is a pleasant surprise and sends a bolt of lightening through the play. Then we meet Vera forty years later when she is the guest on a Merv Griffin style talk show and re united with aging Gloria. Vera is dressed in a colorful gown and turban, is half drunk, and reminisces about the old days with Gloria. Here Vera outlines the theme of the play: she had to play a lowly maid to show her talents and begin her road to stardom in films. Now, all these years later, she is happy that the audience recognizes her but angry that it all started as a maid.

Act two has little to do with act one and showcases the two women in an entirely different way. It did not fit.

The play is adeptly directed by Jo Bonney. She gets vivid performances from Stephanie Block (Gloria), Kimberly Hebert Gregory as Lottie, Karen Olivo as Anne Mae, Dan Breaker as chauffeur Leroy Barksdale and the narrator of a forum in act two, David Garrison as Frederick Slasvick, the producer and Kevin Isola as eccentric director Max Van Oster. Lathan is a whirlwind of talent as Vera. They perform on a series of wonderful sets and a TV sound stage.

The problem with this history play is twofold. First, the entire first act leads you towards the theme that talented black women can only play maids in the 1930s because of racism, but that is not the theme. The real theme, the Vera had to start as maid to become a star, is pretty weak, and not substantiated by the lives of many real black actresses in film history.

While the play is good and a must see for history lovers, there is a huge hole in the middle of it. Ms. Nottage writes on and on about blacks and whites in show business, with blacks under the wheels most of the time, but she does not give the audience much historical background on the vivid prejudice in Hollywood in those years, a prejudice that bolstered racism in the country dramatically. You didn’t see John Wayne shoot it out with any black gunslingers, did you?

First, African Americans were not given black roles. Whites in black face played them, and played them through the late 1940s. You would not believe the people in blackface. Bert Williams, the great black vaudeville star of a mostly white show, was told that even though he was black he had to put on blackface – he wasn’t black enough.

‘The Belle of New Orleans,’ the movie Vera and Gloria star in, resembled dozens of 1930s Civil War era films with southern belles and their loving maids, such as ‘Jezebel,’ ‘So Red the Rose,’  and ‘Mississippi.’ In all of them, blacks could only play smiling carriage drivers, adoring and nonsense talking maids and dancing butlers who smiled graciously for two hours. They loved their white masters and lived only to serve them. In ‘Jezebel,’ Pres, played by Henry Fonda, asks the butler, ‘Uncle Cato,’ to have a drink with him. Fonda stands in the foyer of the mansion and drinks his liquor but Cato has to stand inside a closet to down his because blacks can’t drink with whites. It is a scalding reminder of racism in American movies and America itself in that era. All of that is missing in Vera Stark and could have been added with two minutes of dialogue.

The NAACP? It is gone with the wind here, too. The NAACP fought hard for generations on behalf of black actors, directors and writers, and made little headway until the 1960s. As far back as 1908, the NAACP was battling Hollywood over the lack of black performers and the demeaning way blacks were depicted on the silver screen. The NAACP howled about ‘The Birth of a Nation,’ a hopelessly racist 1915 film that brought about the re-birth of the Ku Klux Klan. Ms. Nottage missed all of that.

There is also no mention of one of America’s best kept secrets – the black cinema. After blacks were so brutalized in ‘The Birth of a Nation,’ hundreds left Hollywood and formed their own film companies. A dozen or so all black film companies produced all black movies for African American audiences. They did good work, but the small audience pool of blacks, limited finances and small distribution circuits killed them within ten years. There is none of that film history in ‘Vera Stark.’ In her play black women jumped from Prissy to Oprah in ten minutes.

History lovers should go to see ‘Vera Stark.’ It is a very funny, engaging play featuring some truly gifted actors. It is a nearly complete play that is quite enjoyable, except for the needed history this play about Hollywood left on the cutting room floor.

PROUCTION:  Produced by the Second Stage Theater. Sets: Neil Patel, Costumes: ESosa, Lighting: Jeff Croiter. Director: Jo Bonney.

Bruce Chadwick can be reached at bchadwick@njcu.edu.

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