Pittsburgh Playhouse's 'Vera Stark' opens up color barriers of the past

| Wednesday, March 19, 2014, 9:01 p.m.

When Tome Cousin went to see “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark” during its New York City run, he had no idea it would introduce him to a seldom-discussed period in African-American film history.

Lynn Nottage's comedic satire, which Cousin is now directing for The Rep at the Pittsburgh Playhouse, focuses on Vera Stark, a smart, outspoken black actress trying to break into Hollywood films in the 1930s.

While doing everything she can to get a break in an industry where roles for black women are few, minor and most often restricted to playing maids, slaves and mammies, Vera also works as the maid and personal assistant for Gloria, a white, fading Hollywood star who was a childhood friend.

And it's not just Vera who's working hard to get ahead — or keep from slipping backward.

“Everyone in the play is working some kind of angle and playing roles. It's all about identity,” Cousin says.

When Gloria and Vera are cast in what will become a legendary epic motion picture, the women, their roles and their relationship become something that scholars and talk-show hosts will still be dissecting three decades later — and in the play's second act.

“These were films my mother and my aunt watched. But it was also something in African-American culture I didn't know anything about,” Cousin says. “It also struck me as such an interesting conversation on actresses and what, at a certain time period, they were willing to do — had to do.”

Women of African heritage are often the focus of Nottage's play. She won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for drama for her play “Ruined,” which was about women caught up in the chaotic civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Pittsburgh audiences may know her best for her play “Intimate Apparel,” which was performed in 2007 at City Theatre.

“She's actually a comedy writer,” Cousin says. “This is comedy and it has a lot of satiric writing that plays into it.”

Cousin suggested the script to Ronald Allan-Lindblom, the artistic director for the Pittsburgh Playhouse, as a play he would like to direct for The Rep's 2013-14 season.

But it was only after Maria Beycoates-Bey agreed to play Vera that he relaxed.

“Once she was in place … I was very confident of taking it on,” Cousin says.

Nottage reportedly used the relationship between the characters played by Barbara Stanwyck and Theresa Harris in the 1933 film drama “Baby Face” as inspiration for her comedy. And the first act of the play is performed in the style of a movie from the 1930s.

So as research for the film, Cousin has watched “Baby Face” as well as a lot of other movies from the 1930s and '40s to make sure he reproduces the movement, texture and dialogue delivery in films.

Among the movies he watched were “Stormy Weather” with Lena Horne, “Imitation of Life” and “It Happened One Night” with Claudette Colbert and “Pinky” with Jeanne Crain playing a light-skinned black woman who has been passing for white but lives with her much-darker-skinned grandmother, played by Ethel Waters.

While watching those films, he became more aware of the no-less-talented black actresses who appear in the background or in roles as maids, cooks, nannies and cleaning women.

Like Vera's, their careers, says Cousin, “were so far-removed from where their dreams really were. It's something we haven't talked about or even considered.”

Alice T. Carter is the theater critic for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7808 or acarter@tribweb.com.

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