Spring Arts Guide: By the Way, Meet Vera Stark--Pulitzer Winner Lynn Nottage Returns With a New Play

Plus Derek Jacobi, the Shaggs, and other spring theater picks

A few years ago, Lynn Nottage found herself watching Babyface, a scandalous film from 1933 in which Barbara Stanwyck seduces her way to love and fortune. Stanwyck gives an indelible performance, but Nottage—an Obie-winning playwright and recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Ruined—found herself absorbed by another actress, a “charismatic and magnetic” African-American woman named Theresa Harris, who played Chico, Stanwyck’s sassy maid.

Indeed, Harris would go on to make a career of sassy maids—there simply weren’t many other roles available for women of color at the time. “I became really intrigued by this woman,” Nottage tells the Voice, “and I began to wonder what would have happened had she been fully able to develop her talents. That’s what led me on the journey of this play.”

This play, Nottage’s follow-up to Ruined, is By the Way, Meet Vera Stark, which begins performances at Second Stage on April 6, directed by Jo Bonney. In the screwball first half, set amid the glamour and squalor of the 1930s, Vera Stark serves as a maid to Gloria Mitchell, “America’s little sweetie pie,” while nursing silver-screen ambitions of her own. In the sardonic second half, set in the present, various academics and essayists host a symposium to discuss Stark’s subsequent career.

To research the play, Nottage wore out her Netflix membership; read various histories and biographies of African-Americans in film; and borrowed scores of DVDs from her film-obsessed father-in-law. Throughout this preparation, she explored the question of why actors of color in this era “made the choices that they did and what this says about their particular culture.” Vera, says Nottage, “is a composite of many women who, after having these stellar careers, faded from our memory.”

Though Vera Stark may not appear as issue-driven as Ruined, it doesn’t shy away from problems of racism and stereotyping, which Nottage believes apply even to today’s film industry. “All you have to do is look at the Academy Awards this year,” she says, “and see how many African-Americans or people of color were represented to know that those limitations and those restrictions still exist. I think it’s particularly true for African-American women—the starring roles for us are few and far between.”

One woman who agrees is Sanaa Lathan, who has stepped away from her Hollywood career to play Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in London’s West End and will soon don Vera’s maid’s uniform. “I’m doing theater now for a reason,” Lathan says. “In the past year, two of the most artistically challenging and fulfilling roles of my career, the kind of roles I dream about, have been on the stage.”

In some ways, Vera Stark can be read as a corrective to films—from the ’30s to the present—in which actors of color play only supporting roles. Vera may begin the piece as a tart-tongued maid, but she soon becomes much more. According to the symposium participants of the second act, she’s a radical, a subversive, a conformist, an apologist, an icon, a diva, a tragic heroine. But no one would dare call her a minor character. In her life and in Nottage’s play, Vera Stark is a star.

‘By the Way, Meet Vera Stark,’ performances begin April 6, Second Stage, 305 West 43rd Street, 2st.com

Spring Theater Picks

The Illusion
Performances begin April 19
It isn’t an exaggeration to consider Tony Kushner a magician of a sort. While still in his thirties, he launched himself into the pantheon of great American playwrights, and though his more recent plays have never quite replicated that early success, his reputation for theatrical conjuring is undiminished. The Signature caps its Kushner season with this revival of his adaptation of the Pierre Corneille tragicomedy about a father who turns to a sorcerer for news of his estranged son. Signature Theatre, 555 West 42nd Street, signaturetheatre.org

King Lear
Performances begin April 28
April showers will fall indoors at the Brooklyn Academy of Music when the Donmar Warehouse brings its celebrated production of King Lear to the Harvey Theater. As the aged monarch, Derek Jacobi braves the storm in a much-praised performance, which the critic of London’s Daily Telegraph calls “the finest and most searching Lear I have ever seen.” Though it runs over three hours, this brisk production apparently leaves audiences howl, howl, howl, howling for more. BAM Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton Street, Brooklyn, bam.org

Be a Good Little Widow
Performances begin April 20
In the Victorian era, a dead husband necessitated more than a year of mourning—no amusements, no parties, an all-black wardrobe. But when Melody’s husband dies, she doesn’t have any such ritual to rely on. In Bekah Brunstetter’s play at Ars Nova, Melody must navigate the rough waters of contemporary widowhood with very little help from her mother-in-law. Director Stephen Brackett makes the funeral arrangements. Ars Nova, 511 West 54th Street, arsnovanyc.com

Performances begin May 6
Ever since Washington Irving adopted Knickerbocker as a synonym, the name has suggested a romantic, vanished New York elite. Playwright Jonathan Marc Sherman doesn’t aim to resurrect that world, but he does set his latest play, debuting at the Public Lab, in the popular Village restaurant of the same name. Secreted in one of its booths, 40-year-old Jerry tries to ready himself for impending fatherhood. Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, publictheater.org

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I'm a three time Obie winner and one time presenter...why can't I get two tickes to this year's Obies? And invitations to the party?I deserve some respect. Iwas there at the almost beginning. Ask Michael Feingold. Who can I contact? It's almost too late.ROSALYN DREXLER