MAID IN HOLLYWOOD
The history of people of color on the screen is complicated, to say the least. The great Hattie McDaniel was hurt and bewildered by criticism from some in her own community who felt she should turn down maid and mammy roles. “Why should I complain about making $700 a week playing a maid?” she reportedly said, “If I didn’t, I’d be making $7 a week being one.” It’s logic that’s hard to refute. And yet… being the maid in the Golden Age of Hollywood was as much a mixed bag for the African American actress playing the role, as it was for the African Americans in the audience.
Seeing one’s minority race, gender, or community constantly reduced to the stereotypical ideas of the majority can be soul-killing and heartbreaking. Embodying that stereotype must be its own kind of hell. Lynn Nottage’s title character in By the Way, Meet Vera Stark is an actual maid who is trying to land the part of a fictional maid in a 1933 Civil War-era epic called The Belle of New Orleans—the story of an octoroon played by a white actress, whose most trusted friend is her maid (and slave) Tilly.
Nottage got the idea of the character of Vera Stark after seeing the performance of actress Thelma Harris in the 1933 Warner Bros. drama Baby Face. In it, Harris does not actually play a maid. She is Barbara Stanwyck’s friend and coworker, and the two go on the lam, hopping freight train cars, trying to keep a step ahead of a murder rap. Harris makes a definite impression: She’s sexy, talented, and is given the chance to play a whole character. But more research on Harris’ career unearthed a long list of playing maid to Ginger Rogers, Bette Davis, Sylvia Sidney, Frances Dee, Myrna Loy, Jean Harlow, Esther Williams, Thelma Todd, and Kay Francis, among others.
Even as a maid, Harris was never the sexless Mammy figure, often played by McDaniel, or Louise Beavers, or in a modern context, Juanita Moore. She was hot, like Lena Horne or Dorothy Dandridge. Nottage uses the histories of all of these actresses in imagining the life and career of Vera, yet this is not to imply that Vera Stark is some sort of composite. She’s a full human being—contradictory, exasperating, beautiful, and sometimes tragically misguided.
The plot is deceptively simple. A white Hollywood star’s maid (Vera) successfully maneuvers herself into the role of a maid in a 1933 Civil War-era epic called The Belle of New Orleans. Forty years later we learn some ugly (and very funny) truths about her life and career; every step of which has been marked by tabloid-ready events: alcoholism, bankruptcy, her husband going to prison… Then she disappears completely. And thirty years after that, a group of cineastes and cultural academics speculate on what really happened, and what meaning (if any) we can take from Vera’s life and career.
That plotline, however, doesn’t fully suggest the depth and inventiveness of this play. Vera Stark is a visual and emotional feast; a triumph of imagination that blends the structural sturdiness of the “well-made play” with wonderfully effective multi-media elements, and a fractured sense of time and place. Every detail is lovingly worked out. Nottage, stage director Jo Bonney, and film director Tony Gerber brilliantly utilize film and video, not merely as a way of expanding what we see; but also as a way of expanding what we feel—making the media into integral, vital, irreplaceable parts of the story.
We don’t just hear the characters describe The Belle of New Orleans, we see its climactic scene in glorious black and white. Then in the second act we jump back and forth between a live taping of Vera’s last boozy television appearance in 1973, and the same footage being scrutinized for an academic seminar. (It’s fabulous when the characters freeze on stage in the exact same poses as they freeze onscreen.)
Sanaa Lathan won a raft of awards in New York for creating the role of Vera, so she’s been at it for a while, but her work is vibrant and fresh, as if she is finding each moment for the first time. And she’s a riot in the second act as she does a boozy, Vegas rendition of Fly Me to the Moon, unaware that she is bidding the television audience a final farewell.
Vera’s mistress in The Belle of New Orleans is played by “America’s Little Sweetie Pie” Gloria Mitchell (Amanda Detmer), who in “real life” employs Vera as her maid—and Gloria is, tantalizingly, possibly related to Vera. They might even be half-siblings, though we never know for sure—and God knows Gloria isn’t telling—not in 1933, and not in 1973 on television when she and Vera have a bittersweet (as well as just plain bitter) reunion.
Detmer is fabulous. She nails the physicality, mannerisms, and vocal patterns of a Hollywood ingénue, and finds lots of humor without ever teetering over into camp. Equally effective are Merle Dandridge and Kimberly Hébert Gregory as Vera’s roommates who are both also in hot pursuit of roles in The Belle of New Orleans. Dandridge’s character is “passing” as a Brazilian spitfire, and Gregory is ready to out-Mammy anyone and everyone. She returns over and over to singing Go Down Moses, pausing hysterically each time to emphasize the plural vernacular she employs on “peoples” in Let my peoples go… Both actresses double as academics in the 2003 symposium scenes; Dandridge as an angry lesbian poet, and Gregory as an arbiter of cultural psycho-speak, and they shine there as well.
The design team does stellar work. Neil Patel’s sets, Jeff Croiter’s lighting, John Gromada’s sound, Shawn Sagady’s projections, and J. Jared Janas’ and Rob Greene’s wigs, hair, and makeup are first rate. ESosa’s costumes for the women are amazing, but the men’s suits are distractingly modern. Men in the 1930s wore their waistlines so high they were practically belting their nipples.
I love this show, but there is one thing that bothers me. The footage from The Belle of New Orleans is wonderfully entertaining and avoids the trap of falling into satire or pastiche, and it absolutely looks like it’s from an actual 1933 Hollywood film, yet it doesn’t quite have the majesty or lyricism that would make it into the kind of classic people would be studying decades after the fact. And Tillie, the character Vera plays, doesn’t have the lines or the actions that would sear her into the audience’s consciousness the way Hattie McDaniel did as Mammy in Gone with the Wind. Whatever you want to say about the politics of GWTW, Mammy emerges as a force of nature; Tillie does not. I would love to see Lathan sink her teeth into something juicier. (More faux documentary footage of Vera Stark’s career can be found at MeetVeraStark and FindingVeraStark.)
In the end, white or African American, drunk or sober, successful or a flop; being an actress in Hollywood seems like a tough row to hoe, whether it’s 1933, 1973, 2003, or 2012. Before shooting The Belle of New Orleans, the studio head and the director argue about how faithful they will be to the film’s source material. In the book, the octoroon character is a prostitute. “No whores!” bellows the studio head, “Make her a nightclub singer or an actress!” Same difference, right?
photos by Michael Lamont
By the Way, Meet Vera Stark
Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles (Los Angeles Theater)
scheduled to close on October 28, 2012
for tickets, visit http://www.geffenplayhouse.com