I recently turned on TCM and caught a wildly campy Civil War epic called Band of Angels, with Yvonne De Carlo as a Southern belle who finds out she’s part black and she ain’t happy about it!
I wonder if Pulitzer-winning playwright Lynn Nottage (Ruined) saw it, because her new work deals with just that kind of out-there racial melodrama, though in this case, the film is made in the 1930s, not the ’50s.
Nottage’s play is a screwball satire that starts out in ’30s Hollywood, where the title character (Sanaa Lathan) is a maid to Gloria Mitchell, a movie star fondly known as “America’s little sweetie pie” (Stephanie J. Block).
In one of the play’s many parallels, Vera lands the role of Gloria’s servant in the film The Belle of New Orleans, about an unwitting octoroon!
Act One has Vera and her roommate Lottie (a hilariously sassy Kimberly Hebert Gregory) and friend (Tony winner Karen Olivo) engaging in all kinds of trickery and manipulation to fit just the kinds of racial stereotypes Hollywood requires in order to give you screen time.
“Slaves with lines?” says Lottie when Vera tells her about the Belle script.
“Slaves with lines, honey!” she responds, triumphantly.
And when Lathan acts out some my-midwife-died-when-I-was-born hard-luck story to impress the pretentious movie director and win the part, you’re gagging with both amusement and empathy.
In Act Two, the tone should deepen, but it stays satirical and surfacey.
Three pompous experts look back on Vera’s legacy and disagree as to whether she was a beacon of ingenuity who helped moved things forward or a disgrace to her race who fueled the machine by perpetuating stereotypes.
By this point, the play has thrown too many points of view at us in a tone that occasionally feels undernourished and smirky.
But there’s a lot of insight and hilarity (the first half feels very Carol Burnett sketch by way of Charles Busch) and you can’t deny the truth in this observation about Hollywood’s enslavement of black actors:
“It was hard enough getting free the first damned time!”
The evening — directed by Jo Bonney — isn’t perfect, but for history’s sake, I’m glad I met Vera Stark.