Most people who view "Baby Face," a cult Warner Brothers flick from 1933, are either attracted to its breathtakingly raw, pre-Code screenplay or to the young Barbara Stanwyck's remarkably hard-boiled performance. Not playwright Lynn Nottage. She was transfixed by Theresa Harris, an unremembered black supporting actress who played an uncharacteristically significant role as Stanwyck's maid and only friend.
"She was cast in an unusual role for African-American actresses at the time — best friend and confidante," says Nottage. The writer became curious about Harris and started exploring her career. She didn't find out much. "She had a relatively undistinguished career in Hollywood. Mostly she played maids to women like Stanwyck and Marlene Dietrich." Harris' example, however, prompted Nottage to explore the lives of other black actresses of the 1930s — frustrated artists who were relegated to playing mere "slaves and servants."
The result was By the Way, Meet Vera Stark, Nottage's first play since the Pulitzer Prize–winning Ruined. Vera Stark, which begins performances this month at Second Stage Theatre, tracks the career of the fictional title character (played by Tony nominee Sanaa Lathan) a striving young actress scheming to land a coveted secondary role in an upcoming Southern epic about a woman in love with a white plantation owner. In the second act, set in the 1970s, a group of film critics screens the movie and debates Stark's artistic legacy.
"I was definitely inspired by the screwball comedies of the 1930s," says Nottage. "The first act is fast-paced, like those comedies." She compares Vera Stark to Caryl Churchill's Top Girls, which also has very disparate first and second halves. "You have two very distinct acts that are very much having a conversation with each other," Nottage says. So what does Nottage herself think is the legacy of actresses like Harris, Louise Beavers and Butterfly McQueen, who made artistic and social compromises in the name of gainful employment? "They felt that someone was going to play the roles," says the dramatist, "so they thought that they might as well do it and imbue them with as much humanity as possible. It's interesting. Sidney Poitier once said something about it. He said he existed because of the pioneering spirit of these actors."
The play's unusual title communicates much of Nottage's feelings about Stark and her overlooked, underused colleagues: "She's at a dinner party with lots of Hollywood stars and everyone recognizes everyone else. And then there's Vera Stark. She's an afterthought."