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'By the Way, Meet Vera Stark' review: Diverting take on diversity

Jessica Frances Dukes plays the title role in

Jessica Frances Dukes plays the title role in "By the Way, Meet Vera Stark." Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

WHAT "By the Way, Meet Vera Stark"

WHEN | WHERE Through March 10, Signature Theatre, 480 W. 42nd St.

INFO $35-$60; 212-244-7529, signaturetheatre.org

BOTTOM LINE Humorous, thought-provoking play explores  racism in Hollywood. 

African-American actress Theresa Harris was in more than 90 films in the 1930s and '40s, almost always playing a maid and often going uncredited. Lynn Nottage takes on this blatant racism in her humorous, thought-provoking 2011 play "By the Way, Meet Vera Stark" at Signature Theatre.

Inspired by Harris' story, the play is yet another example of the meticulous research Nottage is known for — it directly followed her Pulitzer Prize-winning "Ruined" about women in a Congolese brothel — but really it should be considered two plays.

The first act is pure screwball comedy, with several scenes set in a 1930s Hollywood boudoir, dazzlingly all-white down to the ginormous bear rug dominating Clint Ramos' set. Fading film star Gloria Mitchell (a hyperactive Jenni Barber) is rehearsing lines for an audition with her maid Vera Stark (Jessica Frances Dukes, delightfully sassy), their over-the-top readings stopping just short of parody. Gloria is after the lead, but Vera, an aspiring actress as well, draws the attention of studio bigwigs who've come to dinner. Both women get cast: Gloria in the starring role, Vera as who else but the maid.

The second act has a harder edge. It's a double fast forward to 1973, when Vera, by then famous (showing her age in an outlandish print dress by costumer Dede M. Ayite) made her last known appearance on a cheesy talk show, with an unexpected visit from Gloria setting up the twist of an ending. In alternate moments, it's 2003, when three participants in a film forum dissect Vera's life and legacy while watching a clip of that talk show. Director Kamilah Forbes, executive producer of the Apollo Theater in her Signature debut, carefully stages it to keep the decades straight, with significant help from projection designer Katherine Freer, giving us highlights of "The Belle of New Orleans," the movie that established Vera's career.

The talented cast does double duty in this production, highlighted by Warner Miller as a shady musician and a blowhard academic, and Heather Alicia Simms and Carra Patterson, first as Vera's roommates, then two full-of-themselves authors/social critics. But it's really Nottage who gets in the most social criticism, while not letting up on her key premise — the lack of meaningful roles for women of color in Hollywood, clearly a precursor to the #OscarsSoWhite movement — she also has some things to say about the Hollywood sleeze factory, shallow talk show hosts, out-of-touch rock stars, pontificating Ted-Talk types and self-promotional authors. Think of it as the kind of theater where no one is safe.      

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