For certain kinds of people, achieving the American dream has always been a stealth operation. Coming up during the Depression, for instance, my dad obscured his Ashkenazic roots by Latinizing his first name (Maurice, from Moishe), classicizing his middle name (Alexander, after Alexander the Great) and Teutonizing his surname (Adler, from, well, something that wasn't Adler).
Others have had to resort to more extreme methods. Obviously, a name change alone wasn't going to give a Negro access to the good life in pre-Civil Rights Act America, though a high-yellow complexion and careful locution might. Too dark to pass? Then it was a good idea to be phenomenally talented and resourceful. Josephine Baker found stardom by flirting with scandal en Francais. Musicians like Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald, by inventing jazz. Actors like Hattie McDaniel, Butterfly McQueen, and Stepin Fetchit, by simultaneously playing to and humanizing ("subverting" is too strong a word) white society's standard catalog of black caricatures.
Vera Stark belongs to the McDaniel-McQueen-Fetchit contingent. The heroine of Lynn Nottage's fiercely ambitious, wildly uneven By the Way, Meet Vera Stark is a black actress who makes the trip to Hollywood in the early 1930s, on a hunch that "maybe, just maybe times was ready to change," only to find herself employed as maid (and nursemaid) to a neurotic white movie star named Gloria Mitchell. Stark breaks through anyway—cast, ironically enough, as a maid opposite that same Miss Mitchell—in an antebellum costume drama. The film, The Belle of New Orleans, becomes a classic, while Stark ages somewhat less gracefully and then seals her legend by disappearing. By act two, set in 2003, scholars at a colloquium are arguing about her semiotics.
Nottage won a Pulitzer Prize four years ago for Ruined, her devastating play about guerrilla war and sexual atrocity in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. With Vera Stark she just as perceptively anatomizes African-American identity—its imposition, construction, and appropriation. The problem is that the script's structure ultimately fails to support its insights.
The first act is a tour de force in this Goodman Theatre production directed by Chuck Smith, taking the traditional comedy of mistaken identity to odd and amusing new places. It's 1933, and, under the social and economic circumstances, nobody can afford to be who they are. Vera gets wind of The Belle of New Orleans through Gloria, who's in a tizzy over auditioning for the Camille-like lead. She shares the information with her roommate Lottie, a fellow black actress formerly known for her shimmying prowess but now eating her way into mammy roles. Meanwhile, another roommate named Anna Mae is busy parlaying her light skin into a new persona: Anna Marie Fernandez, Brazilian sexpot.
One way or another all three converge on Gloria's posh apartment, where they participate in a festival of personal and cultural disguise that also features a faux-aristocratic film director a la Erich von Stroheim and Vera's love interest, Leroy—a musician with his own masks and his own hopes of breaking through. (Interestingly, the only character who doesn't have to pretend to anything is the studio head—i.e., the wealthiest man in the room.) Together with its richly ironic allusions to movie history, the frenzied role-playing Nottage's script sets in motion is hilarious. TaRon Patton and Amelia Workman are particularly delightful as Lottie and Anna Mae, respectively.
The second-act colloquium looks just as good, initially. The very names of the participants (black lesbian performance poet Afua Assata Ejobo, black "media and gender studies" professor Carmen Levy-Green) drip sarcasm. There's the promise of an acid look at how even Vera's would-be liberators, the intellectuals claiming to wash off the period crust and expose the artist underneath, are in fact just burying her under a new set of assumptions.
But it soon becomes evident that Nottage's academics have no real dramatic function. They exist only to make their points, and then to make them again. And again. What's more, an extended device that has us watching Vera's final TV appearance, on a 1973 talk show, grows tedious and even a little embarrassing well before using improbable means to make its point. A coda in which Vera and Gloria have a talk during the shooting of The Belle of New Orleans is equally ineffective.
In short, the last half of By the Way, Meet Vera Stark is an awful mess. This is exactly what they mean in the old backstage movies when they talk about "second act troubles": a show with a killer opening and no idea what to do next.