When I first read “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark”, I thought it was a comedy. I really did. To myself — and those who watched it when it was performed Oct. 8 through the 11 — the whole first act had the conventional comedic formula, led by a smart heroine. Scene 1: Vera, a young aspiring actress in 1930s Hollywood, works for a crazy boss. Scene 2: Vera lives with two bickering roommates. Scene 3: Vera meets a handsome love interest. Scene 4: Vera puts on a hilarious scheme, grabs the attention of some powerful film executives and reconvenes with her love interest from scene 3.
I fell in love with Vera, who was smart, charming and full of wit. After reading Act I, I was excited to see her success in Act II. After all, we know what happens after a meet-cute, a scheme and a breakout performance by an aspiring performer. Ever since Shakespeare wrote his first comedy, audiences have known that plays with conventional devices like those in “Vera Stark” often meet certain expectations: a successful career, a marriage and maybe some slapstick humor along the way.
But not this one. This play was much different.
In Act II, we discover within five minutes that Vera Stark is gone: All that remains of her are a few film clips and a group of haughty academics trying to reclaim Vera by fighting over her legacy. The beautiful, talented woman we grew to love in Act I vanished after a brief 10-minute intermission.
Suddenly, Act I was put into perspective. It ran much deeper than I thought. “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark” was never a comedy and it was never going to be. I realized that the signs were there all along; I just didn’t notice them. Vera Stark was not an aspiring actress in the 1930s. She was an aspiring black actress. For that reason and for that reason only, she would never, in any reality or fiction, get the typical comic ending.
Vera Stark, like many actors of color in early Hollywood, became famous by playing a flat, background and highly stereotyped role: a mammy slave. Vera’s talent is squandered as she spends 40 years playing slave characters so unimportant that, according to her, screenwriters “didn’t even bother to give [them] last names.” In the final scene, Vera finally goes rogue, lashes out and comes to terms with the fact that her life — her legacy — is a sassy stereotype.
What other resolution could we expect?
I admire this play not only for its comic value, but also for its ability to tell the truth with clarity. Too often in our culture the “truth” is some tainted perspective, some political maneuvering on the part of the “truth-teller” to paint a world that is realistic to him but not universal in reality. With “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark,” playwright Lynn Nottage articulates the experience of one individual that conveys the experience of a million individuals. There is nothing more truthful than that.
But what is so significant about a fictional creation? Why should I harp on for 800 words about a woman who does not exist? Because Vera does exist. Her character was based on real women like Hattie McDaniel, Louise Beavers, Theresa Harris and many other black actresses who never had the opportunity to play beyond their stereotype and whose lives similarly trail off into history after their short appearances on screen. Vera is present and alive in recent Emmy Awards winner Viola Davis’s powerful proclamation that “the only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity.”
What I tried to convey when I directed this play is that Vera deserves the comic ending Nottage sets us up for in the first act. Vera earned the comedic formula; she checked all the boxes and passed with flying colors, right down to the crazy boss, meet-cute and witty banter. She deserved convention. She deserved a happy, successful life. But it has become apparent to me that the only people who ever seem to benefit from the comforts of convention are white.
And yet, I do not believe in using the past to impose white guilt. It is not productive. I do believe in the past’s ability to change our present and future —- to go to a play about the past and discover what we find true about our own present. What I loved most about “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark”, was that each and every night, the audience always laughed with Vera, not at her. Humor connects us; what we find funny reflects what we think is true.
I like to think that when an individual reads this play or sees it on stage or perhaps writes his own play, that he is perpetuating a world with a greater awareness of how racism and sexism often undermine an individual’s opportunity for success and happiness. I hope that I get to live in a world where it is undoubtedly realistic that Vera Stark gets a conventional comic ending.
Caitlin Ouano is a junior in the College. She directed By the Way, Meet Vera Stark.
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