The title of Lynn Nottage’s play is “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark.” So we do, over and over through the two halves of this unusual piece.
We meet her first, longing to break into the movies, when she’s the maid to established white actress Gloria Mitchell (Caroline Bower). Vera (Brandi Nicole Feemster) realizes the quickest way to success in the early 1930s is to play a maid to her employer’s dying heroine in “Belle of New Orleans,” so she angles for a part in the epic.
Then we see her onscreen in a video of the last scene from “Belle,” which made her controversially famous. When it’s over, the lights come up on a modern-day symposium, where academics debate whether she ended up as a lesbian, a suicide or a bag lady.
Vera further gets refracted through the last known TV footage of her, a talk show from the 1970s (acted live, this time) in which the faded 60-something star defends her reputation. Finally, we see her once more between takes of that last scene in “Belle,” where she and Gloria reveal a secret toward which the play has partly been building.
I think you’ll have figured it out by then, and Nottage isn’t structuring the piece as a mystery. It’s about the consequences of behavior, the lengths we’ll go (especially if we’re in the minority in a society) to conform or succeed.
We don’t quite know where we stand with any of the black characters. Light-skinned Anna Mae (Iesha Nyree Hoffman), Vera’s roommate in the first act, gets ribbed by her friends for passing herself off as a Brazilian, but she lands a movie career and seems happy when last we see her.
Proud, relaxed musician Leroy (Gerard Hazelton), who courts Vera, appears to be the best-adjusted member of her circle, yet we learn in Act 2 that his life took a sad turn. Lottie (Ericka Ross), Vera’s other roommate, seems wise and resigned to a life of struggle, but she willingly shuffles for a Russian director who wants to film “real” tragic Negroes who have “the blues.”
Director Jill Bloede has rightly chosen to make the play as funny as she can at first, in order to emphasize the dark side later. Nottage’s change in tone doesn’t fully work: The first half is well-integrated dramatically, while the second jumps around in mood, time and focus. The academics’ dissection of Vera has little point, beyond proving their obnoxiousness.
Hazelton makes a marvelous transformation from the philosophic trumpeter to the supercilious symposium host. Bower brings what she can to the intentionally underwritten role of a lifelong ditz, but Feemster holds the disjointed play together. She’s earnest, funny and likable before intermission, regal and powerless as a declawed lion afterward.
We never do find out what happened to Vera, and that turns out not to matter. We make up our own minds whether she exploited the system or was ground down by it, whether she achieved a reduced version of her dream or died in despair. In this case, the journey remains more important than the destination.