In the mid-1920s, Vera Stark, a beautiful, talented vaudeville actress, left New York for Hollywood, land of dreams, where anything was possible, even decent parts for black women. In 1933, after several years working as a maid for the movie star Gloria Mitchell, aka “America’s Little Sweetie Pie,” she landed her first screen role . . . as Mitchell’s maid.
The picture, The Belle of New Orleans, became a classic. Mitchell’s performance as the title character, a dying prostitute in antebellum Louisiana who turns away her true love so he’ll never learn she’s an octoroon, was widely acclaimed, but Stark outshone her, bringing depth and complexity to the underwritten part of Tilly the maid. Her reading of one of the film’s final lines—”Stay awake, and together we’ll face a new day”—became iconic, seen by some film scholars as a bold statement about the possibility of friendship between blacks and whites.
Stark went on to a long career in movies, but always played the marginal roles of maids and cooks and nurses, never the leads. In the 60s, the NAACP condemned her for participating in the perpetuation of the stereotype of the servile black help. More recently, film critics have celebrated her splendid performances in roles that were clearly not worthy of her talent, but by the time Vera Stark was rediscovered, it was too late: in 1973, after a disastrous gig at the Folies Bergère in Las Vegas, she disappeared.
Technically, Vera Stark never existed. Technically, she’s the creation of the playwright Lynn Nottage and the centerpiece of Nottage’s play By the Way, Meet Vera Stark, now at the Goodman Theatre. But her story is real. It’s the story of Theresa Harris, Hattie McDaniel, Louise Beavers, and dozens of black actresses in early Hollywood—and also of Tamberla Perry, who plays Vera in the Goodman production.
Nottage began thinking about Vera Stark after seeing the 1933 film Baby Face on TV. Theresa Harris played Barbara Stanwyck’s maid. “I was intrigued by this very strong, beautiful woman,” Nottage remembers. “I looked her up on IMDB and discovered she played very marginal roles, but she would shine above them and make herself known. Who were these women who came to Hollywood with the same expectations as white women?”
After some research into the lives of Harris and her peers, Nottage found an answer: “They were performers in vaudeville and on Broadway who were immensely talented. They found that if they wanted to survive, they would put on the mask and be slaves and maids. Those weren’t necessarily the roles they were hoping to perform when they arrived.”
But as McDaniel, who won an Oscar for playing Mammy in Gone With the Wind, famously responded when the NAACP criticized her for her choice of roles: “Why should I complain about making $7,000 a week playing a maid? If I didn’t, I’d be making $7 a week being one.”
By the Way, Meet Vera Stark is constructed as two one-act plays. The first, modeled after a 30s screwball comedy, shows various characters donning their masks for the sake at a shot at the movies—even Vera, who once swore she’d never put on a head rag to play a slave, even a slave with lines.
“I actually did something I vowed I’d never do,” Vera confides as the curtain goes down, “and I did it so easily it frightened me. . . . Tonight I crossed a bridge, and I’m telling you, I ain’t going back!”
The second act shows and deconstructs the consequences of her decision to wear the mask, in the form of an academic colloquium about Vera’s life and work and “footage” of a 1973 talk show appearance during which Vera, older, disappointed, and alcoholic, can barely contain her rage for the years of being passed over because of the color of her skin.
“My talent?” she cries. “Talent. It’s a burden to a Negro woman in this town. What has all my enviable talent given me? Mammy Jane, Josie, Bitsy, Petunia, and Addie, 40 years of characters who they didn’t even bother to give last names. That’s something to celebrate, honey!”
One of Tamberla Perry’s first professional auditions was for a 2006 revival of The Women, Clare Boothe Luce’s comedy about a group of wealthy Manhattanites. She read for Crystal Allen, the lead role famously played in the 1939 movie by Joan Crawford. The director couldn’t see her in the part. She was cast as the maid instead. “I didn’t see anything wrong with it until too many years later,” Perry says. “I was too excited to work.”
Perry’s had a lot of parts since then, on both stage and TV. (She’s also the Illinois Lottery hostess on WGN.) They’re a wider range than what would have been offered to Vera Stark. Aside from The Women, she’s never been a maid, though she was a wet nurse in Sarah Ruhl’s In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play. But every character description she sees for a black female character says exactly the same thing: “‘Sassy,'” she says, in her “sassy” voice. “You cannot get away from it. It’s this idea that that’s what black women do, and what black women do best.”
“Sassiness is about the conflation of African-American women,” adds Willa Taylor, the Goodman’s director of education. “We have different ways of being. We’re not monolithic.”
Chuck Smith, the director of Vera Stark at the Goodman and a theater veteran since the 60s, disagrees. “I think ‘sassy’ is another word for ‘strong,'” he says. “It’s never going to change, by the way. Someone will always want a Hispanic with a strong accent, or any other ethnic group stereotype. Movies are a commercial venture, not a social venture. They’re out there to make money. The more people who watch, the more money they make. If all of a sudden there was a miracle and black movies started making money, everyone would want to watch African-Americans.”
But films made by and for African-Americans remain a very small segment of the market, and films made by African-American women even smaller. In order to showcase the work of black women filmmakers, Taylor has cocurated “Dark Eyes: Visions of Black Women,” a series of four films made by contemporary female African-American directors, running on Thursday evenings this month. Three are family dramas, and the fourth is the story of a 1930s movie actress much like Vera.
“I wanted a range of portrayals of African-American women,” Taylor says. “Stereotyping is not that interesting. There are more standards of beauty. There’s a broader world people are sharing and experiencing than is currently represented in the media.”
Not all the women in the films are sassy. They’re not all long-suffering. Not all have straight hair and light skin. (“Colorism: the dirty little secret in the African-American community,” Taylor comments.) And most of these movies remain obscure, even to devout moviegoers; the best known is probably Kasi Lemmons’s Eve’s Bayou, hailed by Roger Ebert as one of the best films of 1997.
Who makes a greater contribution, Taylor wonders: the director of a tiny, little-seen film that accurately depicts one facet of the black experience, or someone like Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, the great tap dancer who made a fortune playing butlers in Hollywood and then donated most of it back to his community?
“It’s easy to point fingers at performers without understanding the complexity of their choices,” Nottage says. “What should be discussed is the natures of those choices.”
Very little is known about Theresa Harris or any of her contemporaries, particularly why they made the choices they did, but Nottage can make sure we know certain things about Vera Stark. That’s why she’s created a “third act” for the play, in the form of a pair of scholarly websites devoted to Vera’s life and work. There’s archival material, including excerpts from her autobiography, and short documentaries ostensibly shot by Herb Forrester and Carmen Levy-Green, two of the characters in the play. They feature the director Peter Bogdanovich, among others, talking about Vera’s importance in film history.
“This is what I want to do,” says Nottage. “I want to engage with the characters we see in films in a more complex way. I want to recognize their humanity.”