| AandE

Larger text Larger text Smaller text Smaller text | Order Photo Reprints

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

Jeff Swensen - Tru Verret-Fleming (left) and Maria Beycoates-Bey in The Rep's 'By the Way, Meet Vera Stark.'
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Jeff Swensen</em></div>Tru Verret-Fleming (left) and Maria Beycoates-Bey in The Rep's 'By the Way, Meet Vera Stark.'
Jeff Swensen - Maria Beycoates-Bey (left) and Kelly Trumbull in The Rep's 'By The Way, Meet Vera Stark.'
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Jeff Swensen</em></div>Maria Beycoates-Bey (left) and Kelly Trumbull in The Rep's 'By The Way, Meet Vera Stark.'

Email Newsletters

Click here to sign up for one of our email newsletters.

‘By the Way, Meet Vera Stark'

Produced by: The Rep

When: March 20-April 6 at 8 p.m., Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays

Admission: $15-$27

Where: Studio Theatre Pittsburgh Playhouse, 222 Craft Ave., Oakland

Details: 412-392-8000 or

'American Coyotes' Series

Traveling by Jeep, boat and foot, Tribune-Review investigative reporter Carl Prine and photojournalist Justin Merriman covered nearly 2,000 miles over two months along the border with Mexico to report on coyotes — the human traffickers who bring illegal immigrants into the United States. Most are Americans working for money and/or drugs. This series reports how their operations have a major impact on life for residents and the environment along the border — and beyond.

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

Subscribe today! Click here for our subscription offers.




Show commenting policy

Most-Read Stories

  1. Kang’s 9th-inning home run gives Pirates wild victory over Twins
  2. Rossi: ‘Hockey guy’ Sutter will be missed
  3. Steelers’ Wheaton adjusting his game moving to slot receiver
  4. School credit ratings a problem for several in Western Pennsylvania
  5. Penguins trade Sutter to Canucks, sign free agent center Fehr
  6. Pirates notebook: Prospect Tucker unaware of ‘trade’ frenzy
  7. Steelers RB Le’Veon Bell gets suspension, fine reduced
  8. Van Halen plays plenty of favorites in First Niagara show
  9. 5 face trial in beating of black man in Pittsburgh
  10. More than 100 stamp bags confiscated in Greensburg; 4 arrested
  11. Hempfield cyclist to cool wheels in jail during appeal