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Wednesday, February 22, 2023

Pulitzer Prize-winner Lynn Nottage’s satirical play opens Feb. 25 in Will Theatre

URI Theatre takes irreverent look at racial stereotypes in Hollywood 

By Tony LaRoche 

Starring in “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark” are EJ Caraveo
as Gloria Mitchell, front, Kafui Glover as Vera Stark, left,
Sabrina Youn as Lottie McBride, back center, and David
Santana as Leroy Barksdale. (URI Photos by Jesse Dufault)
Hollywood’s golden age wasn’t so golden if you were an aspiring Black actor. Just ask Vera Stark.

If you check out the University of Rhode Island Theatre Department’s spring semester opener, you’ll meet Vera Stark, a Black maid working for a white Hollywood star, Gloria Mitchell, known as “America’s little sweetie-pie.” 

Vera dreams of her own career in the pictures as she runs lines with Gloria. But it’s 1930s Hollywood and being a Black actor means – if you can land an audition – accepting roles as slaves, maids and mammies. 

Lynn Nottage’s 2011 play, “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark,” which opens Saturday, Feb. 25, in URI’s Robert E. Will Theatre for a seven-show run, tells the story of Stark in the style of a 1930s screwball comedy as it takes a satirical look at racial stereotypes in Hollywood. 

Along with her boss Gloria, Vera – and her roommates Lottie McBride and Anna Mae Simpkins – land a part in an Antebellum epic, “The Belle of New Orleans.” For Vera, the role of devoted servant to Gloria’s character in the film colors her whole career, with critics debating her legacy decades later.

Nottage, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, researched Black actresses of the era and based the role of Vera on Theresa Harris, who played maids and servants opposite white stars for decades. 

Visiting director Don Mays says Nottage gives a full view of how Black actors and the roles that were available to them were looked upon inside and outside Hollywood.

“Vera’s decision to take on the role is based on the only thing that was available to Black actors at the time, and Lynn Nottage does a great job of satirizing those choices,” said Mays, a member of Providence’s Wilbury Theatre Group. “At one point, Vera says, ‘I’m gonna get to play a slave … with lines,’ as opposed to just being background fodder. To have a role, even one as a slave, was big.

“But then there’s the pushback from people who ask why must we do these roles? We’re not doing ourselves any favors by taking on these roles and creating false images of who we are as a people.”

Kafui Glover ’23, who plays Vera Stark, says she wanted to be in the play from the first time she read it because it’s very funny and because of its powerful story. She also wants to honor Black actresses who’ve worked hard to prove themselves in an unforgiving occupation, and hopes she inspires others. 

“I have learned so much about the historical side of this play,” said Glover, a theater major in acting from Providence. “I’ve learned what determination and endurance look and sound like. The obstacles in these time periods did not slow anyone down, especially Vera. I think this story is like nothing we have seen at URI Theatre in a long time.” 

Sabrina Youn ’24, plays Lottie and Carmen Levy-Green, who appears in act two as an expert debating Vera’s legacy 70 years after the making of “The Belle of New Orleans.” Youn says Lottie is honest and hilarious, but even when she is not acting in stereotypical roles, her character is one. But Carmen, a well-established scholar, represents what Black women can be.  

Youn says the play stands out because the characters are specifically written for Black actors. “Because most popular plays weren’t written for people of color, it is very rare when I get the opportunity to actually see myself playing certain roles,” said Youn, a theater major in acting from Central Falls. “The name of the play, ‘By the Way, Meet Vera Stark,’ is a message in itself because there were many actresses who mirrored the life of Vera, but are simply just forgotten.”

EJ Caraveo ’24, of Tiverton, plays Gloria, who seems the stereotypical 1930s actress but has a lot more going on under the surface, Caraveo says. “The play is so wonderfully done,” said Caraveo. “Nottage has created such a creatively crafted piece of theater that is not only fun, but immensely important.”

The fast-paced play spans 70 years, starting with Vera’s first steps toward stardom in the 1930s. In the second act, her career and life are dissected through a 1973 talk show and a 2003 colloquium.

Staging a play with such a time span has tested cast and crew, Mays says. The set, designed by alumna Renee Surprenant-Fitzgerald, serves as the stylish, Art Deco apartment of Gloria and the flat for Vera, Anna Mae and Lottie, while switching in act two to spaces for the colloquium and talk show. Costume designer Jaimy Escobedo, a theater alumnus, has designed outfits for four distinct eras – including costumes for a film clip of “The Belle of New Orleans” shot for the play.

And the seven actors – all from Rhode Island – have had to create characters that fit into each era. Glover and Caraveo go from 1930s Hollywood starlets gliding and talking with a lilt to aged actors with gravelly smokers’ voices, Mays says. The rest of the cast each play two roles, each distinctive from the other. 

“I’ve learned how to move as someone who lived in the 1930s and 1970s,” said Caraveo, a theater major in acting and costume design. “The way people talk and walk in these eras are so vastly different than modern day.”

A key member of the team that has helped cast and crew faithfully recreate drastically different time periods has been David Weber, the play’s dramaturg. Weber’s work has included creating an annotated script explaining references and terms that might be outdated and confusing, and providing information on real-life people that could help the actors create their characters.

“Working on the play has been so fun,” said Weber ’24, a physics and theater major from Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. “There are so many different time periods that the play visits. I’m walking away from this production with so many historical facts and an in-depth knowledge of early Hollywood, especially the African American actresses who have been overlooked.”

Pardon our appearance: The Fine Arts Center, home of the Will Theatre, is undergoing construction, so patrons must use the theater entrance in the back of the building, accessed from the parking lot on Bills Road. Look for the marked entrance to the right of the fenced off construction area.

“By the Way, Meet Vera Stark” runs Feb. 25 and March 1-4 at 7:30 p.m. and on Feb. 26 and March 5 at 2 p.m. in Will Theatre at the Fine Arts Center, 105 Upper College Road, Kingston Campus. Tickets are $20 for the general public and $15 for senior citizens and URI students, faculty and staff. Tickets can be purchased online or by calling (401) 874-5843. For more information on tickets and the University’s COVID-19 policy, go to the ticket website.

“By the Way, Meet Vera Stark” cast:

Character, Actor, Hometown
Vera Stark, Kafui Glover, Providence
Gloria Mitchell, EJ Caraveo, Tiverton
Lotte McBride/Carmen Levy-Green, Sabrina Youn, Central Falls
Anna Mae Simpkins/Afua Assata Ejobo, Ayrin Ramirez Peguero, Providence
Leroy Barksdale/Herb Forrester, David Santana, Providence
Fredrick Slasvick/Brad Donovan, Matt Perrotta, Cranston
Maxmillian Von Oster/Peter Rhys-Davies, Liam Roberts, Warwick