Vera Stark could have been the poster child for today’s Oscar controversy.
She made the transition from vaudeville to Hollywood in the 1930s with dreams of being in the movies. Those dreams were dashed when she learned directors wanted black actresses only for the maid’s role.
The same could be said for her real life — Vera worked as a maid while auditioning to be a fictional maid. And as she would later recall in a 1973 interview, none of those maids had a last name.
That interview comes in the second act of the LSU School of Theatre’s production of Lynn Nottage’s comedy “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark,” which opens Wednesday in the Reilly Theatre.
“It’s a timely story with the Oscars controversy,” guest director Pironne Yousefzadeh said. “I’ve done a lot of plays in my career that are surrounded by race, and I feel a profound responsibility to talk about it in the right way.”
Yousefzadeh lives in Brooklyn and has directed in theaters throughout the country, including the Actors Theatre of Louisville in Kentucky and her alma mater, the Juilliard School in New York. “Vera Stark” is her first directing job in Baton Rouge.
“I realize that in order to fulfill what the playwright wants, I’m asking the actors to go to brave and difficult territories,” Yousefzadeh said. “It costs something to ask an actor to do something like the mammy persona.”
And the personality of the plantation mammy lingers in this story as Lottie, played by Fola Afolayan, purposely gains weight to achieve Hollywood’s idea of a mammy.
“Vera is holding on for a part, but Lottie gives up hope and eats so she can fit into the category of a mammy in the movies,” Afolayan said. “Lottie transforms into a mammy for an impromptu audience at a dinner party attended by a movie director. It’s comical, but it’s heartbreaking. But it’s also brilliant.”
Afolayan, of North Carolina, is in the LSU’s master of fine arts program. She leaves Lottie in the first act to play Carmen, a documentary filmmaker who seeks to tell Vera’s story, in the second act.
And Vera is blunt about her feelings.
“My talent?” she asks in footage from a 1973 talk show. “Talent. It’s a burden to a Negro woman in this town. What has all my enviable talent given me? Mammy Jane, Josie, Bitsy, Petunia and Addie — 40 years of characters who they didn’t even bother to give last names. That’s something to celebrate, honey.”
The footage for LSU’s production was filmed by Josh Overbay in a collaboration between the LSU School of Theatre and the theater department’s film and television program.
The footage features an older, disappointed Vera, whose life has been worn down by alcoholism and rage. She was beautiful and witty back in the day but was never considered for roles because of her skin color.
Vera is played by junior theater major Breon Cobb, of Baton Rouge. She works as a maid for a Vivien Leigh-type actress who’s offered a part in a movie echoing “Gone With the Wind.”
Vera has vowed not to play a domestic servant, but she also knows it’s her only chance at stealing small scenes in a Hollywood blockbuster.
“We researched a lot of actresses from that time, and all of them did so many things,” Afolayan said. “Butterfly McQueen was a dancer before she was in ‘Gone With the Wind.’ ”
“It’s an intelligent story, and Vera is a go-getter,” Cobb added. “Vera isn’t jaded, but her eyes are open to the way of the world and how messed up it is.”