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Toiling in the Thirties

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Ensemble Theatre presents ‘By the Way, Meet Vera Stark’
by Donalevan Maines

Michelle Elaine (l) stars in the title role in Ensemble Theatre’s production of By the Way, Meet Vera Stark. Elizabeth Marshall Black (inset) is Gloria Mitchell.
Michelle Elaine (l) stars in the title role in Ensemble Theatre’s production of By the Way, Meet Vera Stark.

Lupita Nyong’o, meet Vera Stark.

In the “imaginary history” play currently at the Ensemble Theatre, Vera is a com-posite of forgotten black actresses who paved the way for today’s stars by toiling as maids and slaves in Hollywood movies in the 1930s. Yes, Nyong’o played a slave in her Oscar-winning performance this year, but as Vera would point out, “She’s a slave with lines, honey.”

By the Way, Meet Vera Stark concerns Vera’s tangled relationship with Gloria Mitchell, a Hollywood starlet. In a story that spans 70 years, the audience learns how their true identities are more than skin deep.

“It’s suggested that Gloria and Vera were lesbian lovers, and that it was a torrid affair that ended badly after Vera was nominated for an Academy Award,” says Herb Forrester, a filmmaker, musician, and entrepreneur from Oakland, who leads an Act II colloquium that examines what happened to Vera Stark.

Another panelist, a “slightly masculine” lesbian journalist/poet/activist, scoffs at that idea. “As a black lesbian, I want nothing more than to claim Vera,” says the character, Afua Assata Ejobo. “But, yo, can Vera not exist without a relationship to Gloria? . . . F–k Gloria Mitchell!”

Jo Anne Davis-Jones, who served as dramaturg for the Ensemble’s production, says the character of Afua Assata Ejobo provides an important perspective to the play. “Afua brings passion and raw grittiness to the intellectual discussion,” explains Davis-Jones. “She’s very outspoken in her opinions on Vera Stark and her contributions to the movie industry for African-American women. She embraces Vera’s courage to take chances, describing her as real and radical.”

Lynn Nottage wrote Vera Stark as a follow-up to her Pulitzer Prize-winning Ruined, which Obsidian Art Space produced last month. An April 21, 2011, article in the New York Times revealed that the play was inspired by Houston native Theresa Harris and her role as Barbara Stanwyck’s maid, Chico, in Baby Face (1933).

“I was struck by how different it was from so many of the other representations of African-American women that I had seen from that period,” said Nottage.

Elizabeth Marshall Black (inset) is Gloria Mitchell.
Elizabeth Marshall Black (inset) is Gloria Mitchell.

Harris later played a slave girl, Zette, to Bette Davis in Jezebel (1938) and Marlene Dietrich’s maid, Clementine, in The Flame of New Orleans (1941).

In the play’s first act, Vera lands the role of Gloria’s slave/maid, Tilly, in an antebellum Southern epic called The Belle of New Orleans (“Magnolias and petticoats, cotton and slaves”).

“It’s a gross misrepresentation of history,” says Herb, arguing that the movie “paints a portrait of a romantic and idealized world, where the slave woman Tilly doesn’t long for freedom, but merely to please her dying mistress.”

Calling Vera’s movies “a blight on our culture,” another character taunts Vera, “Why are we still playing slaves? Shucks, it was hard enough getting free the first damn time.”

Jo Anne Davis-Jones served as dramaturg for Ensemble Theatre’s production of By the Way, Meet Vera Stark.
Jo Anne Davis-Jones served as dramaturg for Ensemble Theatre’s production of By the Way, Meet Vera Stark.

“It’s easy to point fingers today,” an agitated Vera says in a 1973 talk show depicted in Act II. “But, honey, should I not have taken that role and cleaned toilets and made beds in someone’s home instead?!”

Michelle Elaine, who plays Vera at the Ensemble, says, “Emotionally, sometimes I get sad thinking about how Vera could act circles around Gloria, but Vera is limited in the parts she can get.”

Michelle was R.C., a protective lesbian, in Bug at Theatre Southwest in 2010. “‘Butch’ is the word we used in rehearsals,” she says. “Her physicality is what I wanted to capture, and I focused on her being a really good friend to Agnes, who was being brainwashed.”

Appearing as Gloria at the Ensemble is Elizabeth Marshall Black, who played the title role in Celebration Theatre’s The Beebo Brinker Chronicles in 2012. “She was out in the gay and lesbian community, where she was a well-known figure,” says Black, describing the Greenwich Village setting of Ann Bannon’s popular pulp-fiction series.

Outside of the bars, though, Beebo Brinker “was never allowed to be herself. She still had to pass as a man, so she wouldn’t get beaten up. I had sympathy and empathy for her.

“Any time you’re not allowed to reach your full potential,” Black concludes, “there is a tragic element to it.”

What: By the Way, Meet Vera Stark
When: through April 13
Where: Ensemble Theatre, 3535 Main St.
Tickets/info: ensemblehouston.com, [email protected], or 713.520.0055.

Donalevan Maines also writes about the GMCLA it gets better tour in this issue of OutSmart magazine.

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Don Maines

Donalevan Maines is a regular contributor to OutSmart Magazine.

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