So what's the difference between a story and a lie? There are any number of possible answers to this conundrum — circling around issues of knowingly lying versus omission through bias or arrogance — but the question itself lies at the heart of two plays grappling head-on with the relationship between racial identity and the art that depicts it.
Last week, the Geffen Playhouse opened its presentation of the West Coast premiere of Lynn Nottage's By the Way, Meet Vera Stark. Commissioned by South Coast Repertory and first presented at New York's Second Stage Theatre (director Jo Bonney, the design team and the lead actors are imported from that production), it's an homage to the sultry African-American actress Theresa Harris, featured in the 1933 film Baby Face playing a maid to silk-stockinged Barbara Stanwyck. The production, however, depicts the lives of black actors in 1930s Hollywood during the making of a studio flick called The Belle of New Orleans, clearly a riff on Gone With the Wind. The larger point isn't about any particular movie but about an operatic style of moviemaking, and unspoken attitudes toward which ethnicity gets the starring roles in the melodramas of our history.
In early September, Margaret Laurena Kemp performed (with drummer Aaron Serfaty) a workshop of her own play-in-development, In a Circle Everything Is Up, based on the life of black singer-actress Abbey Lincoln, in an upstairs studio at Pieter, a venue behind the railroad tracks on Avenue 33 in Lincoln Heights. The studio is hidden away in an industrial district as an incubator for powerful works, flush with integrity, like Kemp's.
Talent on the margins is precisely Kemp's take on Lincoln, and Nottage's point about Harris, whom she's given the moniker Vera Stark.
Both performances feature an extensive use of film. Video editor and projectionist Paul Buxton beamed images of Abbey Lincoln and her idol, Billie Holiday, on a screen behind Kemp. In Vera Stark, filmmaker Tony Gerber has created faux-archival clips that wash over Neil Patel's set, featuring the contemporary actors at the Geffen starring in The Belle of New Orleans.
In a Circle Everything Is Up (subtitled An Affair Abbey Lincoln) started on the street by the railroad tracks, where the audience gathered. At exactly the moment starting time was announced, the Gold Line light rail barreled past the flashing lights on the railway barricades, and a woman (Kemp) attired in a flowing red gown akin to Zulu traditional garb appeared in front of the tracks staring forward toward the performance venue, about 100 yards away. She held in one hand a uhadi, a single-string gourd instrument used in Zulu dance performances. In her other hand, she held the bow.
Although she was facing away from the railway gates, as they lifted after the train passed, so did her arms in perfect synchronicity. And so began her procession down Avenue 33 in slow motion, eyes fixed at some space on the horizon, toward her audience, accompanied by the sounds of the uhadi, a bowing of a single string amplified by a battery-powered generator attached to her hip. The crowd separated in order to allow this sorceress to pass through. She guided them into the building and up the rickety wooden stairs and into the performance venue.
The piece's opening depicted the origins of the kinds of music and movement that would eventually wash over from South African shores into America.
After transforming into black slacks and a red, sleeveless top, Kemp portrayed a couple of characters, including a young fan of Abbey Lincoln's who recalls seeing her at the Catalina Bar & Grill in L.A., and the indignity of her performing for just six people. Naturally, Kemp also portrayed Lincoln (aka “the Negro Marilyn Monroe”) who reveres Billie Holiday and quotes her: “Look at [the audience] then look away at the same time. All they want is your soul.”
Marilyn Monroe suffered similar agonies from a soul adrift. The question posited by Kemp, and by Nottage in Vera Stark, is why Monroe would emerge as an international legend, while the likes of Lincoln and Theresa Harris were relegated to the margins of pop culture.
Kemp's piece, still in development for a full production, focuses on the necessity of being “true” to the stories one tells, like Lincoln told, even at the cost of anonymity. Being forgotten, or marginal like Lincoln, can change. Such a change of perception is what Kemp is trying to accomplish.
Vera Stark is as satirical is Kemp's piece is earnest. It relishes its moments of glee: Vera Stark (the simmering Sanaa Lathan) as a serving maid, turning on the oppressed-slave routine in order to impress a movie director (Mather Zickel) seeking “the hundreds of years of oppression” in real people, not actors. Or her heavy-set pal (Kimberly Hebert Gregory) bursting into a soulful rendition of “Go Down Moses” in order similarly to conform to the German-Russian director's stereotyped presumptions of “truth.”
Or the black bombshell (Merle Dandridge) posing as an immigrant from Rio de Janeiro in order to date the director without any stigma. In the camaraderie among the women lies one of the play's many essences.
The studio mogul (Spencer Garrett) and the director go head-to-head over the issue of whether the “truth” should be pursued in earnest or studiously avoided for the sake of comforting audiences during an economic downturn.
They don't want oppression, the mogul insists, after the director says he wants to film The Belle of New Orleans in a brothel, showing the wrinkles on the prostitutes. No prostitutes, no wrinkles, the mogul rages. Audiences want romance and diversion. One would presume that black characters in leading roles also violates this tenet of romance and diversion, though the studio execs don't discuss explicitly.
Nottage bifurcates her play into an act set in 1930s Hollywood, and a more contemporary act featuring a panel of goofy academics reviewing Vera Stark's last interview on a talk show in the 1970s.
ESosa's gorgeous and amusing costumes fuel the shift from satire to parody — a shift that consumes everything except Lathan's now intoxicated, humiliated-by-life performer.
The play follows the tradition of George C. Wolfe's 1986 The Colored Museum — a festival of black stereotypes aiming to look at the origins and essences of stereotypes — but the poignancy of so many of Wolfe's characters is here in short supply. Even Vera in decline settles into a cliche, despite the tenderness of Lathan's performance. Throughout the production, Nottage's very intriguing premise gets joked away in a style of sketch comedy that's too relentless for the play's own good.
As the saying goes, there's a kernel of truth in every joke, and this is Vera Stark's best defense. And yet, the production comes packed with the small satirical truths trying to cement the larger truth that Vera Stark has been marginalized because she's black. Do we really need an academic panel to draw that obvious conclusion, or a parody of one?
One of the academics insightfully notes that Vera was so sly, she was revolutionary — commenting through facial expressions on the indignity of her role. This may be the play's most compelling insight, but how can we take it seriously from a panel that's a mockery of itself?
In Nottage's earlier plays Intimate Apparel and Ruined, levity yields to moments of deadly seriousness and conviction. Vera Stark feels like a play swirling in an author's passion and curiosity, but a play in which she's still searching for what to believe.
BY THE WAY, MEET VERA STARK | By Lynn Nottage | Geffen Playhouse, 10866 Le Conte Ave., Westwood | Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 3 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m.; through Oct. 28. | (310) 208-5454 | geffenplayhouse.com