Who lives, who dies, who tells your story? A few years before Alexander Hamilton pondered that, Vera Stark was spikily trying to wrestle control of her own narrative in Lynn Nottage’s comedy By the Way, Meet Vera Stark. Originally produced by Off-Broadway’s Second Stage in 2011, the comedy about Hollywood, acting, race, identity, and mid-century talk shows is currently being revived at the Signature Theatre through March 3. And director Kamilah Forbes can’t wait for audiences to experience the play again—or for the first time.
“This style of comedy is completely unexpected from [Nottage],” Forbes says. “But I think it speaks to diversity of voice within a single artist. It’s important to constantly remind ourselves to allow that space.”
For those only familiar with Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize winners Sweat and Ruined, a swiftly-paced satire about a 1930s movie star and her African-American maid, also a fellow actor, may not seem in keeping with what has long preoccupied Nottage as a writer: inequality, the question of identity, and how the political becomes the personal (and vice versa). But that is to underestimate both Nottage and the play, which takes a dramatic and marked turn in the second act.
As Vera finds herself cast in a juicy supporting role as a slave in a Civil War epic starring her employer, the show takes a dizzying look at the price of fame, as well as its repercussions as Vera finds herself heralded for her work and the subject of critical scrutiny decades later as her accomplishments are debated.
Even the title speaks to Vera’s narrative. By putting her name after a comma, she becomes parenthetical, an afterthought. And in a time when the truth and perception seem more malleable than ever, Vera’s singular plight as a black actor in Hollywood’s Golden Age is more timely than Nottage may have imagined when the show first premiered.
“It tells the story of how powerful images in media are,” Forbes says. “Who’s controlling the narrative of Vera Stark? We all bend the narrative to suit the story that I want to tell. But how might that be damaging to the originator? How is that damaging to our core subject? What gets lost in that manipulation, in that retelling?
“She’s saying so much on contemporary media through the lens of this Pre-Code actress. That’s why I love this play, about the idea of power struggles and how the people we think have the control actually don’t. It’s the constant flip-flop!”
By the Way, Meet Vera Stark plays at Off-Broadway’s Pershing Square Signature Center (480 W 42nd Street between Dyer and Tenth Avenues) in a limited engagement run beginning January 29 through March 10.