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Lynn Nottage wants 'Vera Stark' to be a conversation starter

The author's play about a black actress in the '30s comes to Geffen Playhouse with, star Sanaa Lathan says, still-relevant issues.

September 07, 2012|By Margaret Gray
  • Playwright Lynn Nottage at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood.
Playwright Lynn Nottage at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times )

You've probably never heard of the African American actress whose film career and life are dramatized in Lynn Nottage's play"ENMV0002398">"By the Way, Meet Vera Stark."

Don't feel bad: Plenty of serious film buffs haven't, either.

Google the name and you'll turn up a documentary by scholar Herb Forrester, "Rediscovering Vera Stark," which includes a clip from her film "The Belle of New Orleans" (1933), a handful of photographs and some speculation about her mysterious fate. Not a lot else.

For Nottage, such yawning gaps in the historical record lend poignancy to flickering images of black actresses in ruffled maids' costumes, dropping off trays of hors d'oeuvres in the 1930s screwball comedies she loves. (She cites "My Man Godfrey" from 1936 as "one of my favorite films in the world.")

"I love the sensibility, I love the quick pace of the humor, I love the irreverence of those 1930s films, but …" She takes a breath. "The thing that always bothered me is that you'd have these very talented African American actresses who would pop on in these bit roles for two minutes, literally, and disappear."

Who were they? What were their lives like? What happened to them?

"For a lot of them the trail really ends cold," explains Nottage, 47, who lives in Brooklyn but has come to L.A. for the first week of rehearsals for the play, which will make its West Coast premiere at the Geffen Playhouse Sept. 26. "They just sort of disappeared from Hollywood, and you can't find out. The trail for others is that they ended up destitute and forgotten."

Although Vera Stark's career path resembles those of other black actresses of her era, such as Theresa Harris, Hattie McDaniel, Louise Beavers and Nina Mae McKinney, there is one crucial difference: Vera Stark is a fictional character.

So is Herb Forrester, the putative creator of the "Rediscovering Vera Stark" website. The site is a tongue-in-cheek spoof created by Nottage and a team of collaborators — including director Peter Bogdanovich, whose deadpan commentary is a highlight of the documentary. (Nottage is friends with his daughter.)

Nottage explains, "A lot of people who came to see the play in New York didn't realize that Vera isn't real. And they wanted to find out who she is."

She conceived the website (and another soon to follow) not to hoodwink people but to "allow them to play the game. Vera may not be a real person, but she is a reflection of many people. She's a composite of a lot of actresses. Her circumstances are real."

Upon first acquaintance elegantly beautiful and intimidatingly serious, Nottage breaks into a warm, infectious giggle as she adds, "Interestingly enough, somebody went to Herb Forrester's site and he got invited to lecture at the New York Film Academy. We had to say, 'Unfortunately, he's a fictional character.'"

Nottage, a prolific playwright with multiple awards including the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for drama (for "Ruined") and a MacArthur "genius grant," has been storing up the observations and reflections that inform "Vera Stark" all her life, since she was a child watching black-and-white movies on TV after school.

During the 1990s, while living on 110th Street in New York City, Nottage and her husband ran into Butterfly McQueen, best known as Prissy in "Gone With the Wind," in a grocery store.

"My husband says, 'Are you Butterfly McQueen?'" recalls Nottage. "And she said with that sort of precious little voice she has, 'Yes,' and she was just so delighted that anybody recognized her. Her face just totally lit up. I mean, here's this woman who's sort of an indelible part of film history, wandering the aisles of the supermarket."

For audiences who saw "Ruined" at the Geffen in 2010, "Vera Stark" may look like a radical departure.

"Ruined," set in a brothel in Uganda, is based on interviews Nottage and director Kate Whoriskey did with Congolese women brutally victimized by military turmoil, while "Vera Stark" is a bubbly, glamorous comedy set in old Hollywood. It includes a clip from the (fictional) film "The Belle of New Orleans," in which director Jo Bonney and her cast have a great time with the cinematic conventions of the 1930s.

There are some unifying themes, though. As Nottage observes, a through-line in her diverse oeuvre is "my focus on African American women, or women from the African diaspora, who've been marginalized by circumstance and who are trying to assert their presence."

From this rather heavy-sounding premise she crafts plays that charm audiences.

In his 2010 review of "Ruined," Times theater critic Charles McNulty wondered, "How does the playwright manage to get us to pay attention to what the nightly newscasts only flittingly report for fear of losing viewers? She concentrates on the women not as generalized victims but as individual survivors, with specific histories, longings, strengths and shortcomings."

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