Over the years, many have argued -- and argued quite well -- that Hollywood is plagued with racism.
In their 2011 New York Times article, "Hollywood's Whiteout," staff film critics Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott wrote:
[Race] in American cinema has rarely been a matter of simple step-by-step progress. It has more often proceeded in fits and starts, with backlashes coming on the heels of breakthroughs, and periods of intense argument followed by uncomfortable silence.
This was in response to the 'whiteout' of the 2010 Academy Awards where not one black actor was nominated, yet we supposedly lived in a time of 'post-racism' which was being highly discussed in response to President Obama being in office as the president of the United States.
So was 2010 a fluke or is there a larger problem at hand?
According to a brief from UCLA Chicana Studies Research Center in 2006, 69 percent of all available roles in Hollywood were reserved for white actors, with a gender breakdown of 59 percent of roles designated for males and 35 percent for females.
People of color, depending on their racial/ethnic background were limited to 0.5 percent to 8.1 percent of roles that were available to both white and nonwhite actors. To simplify, think about it like this: If there were 100 people standing shoulder to shoulder in front of you, less than eight of those people would get a role in Hollywood.
Beyond the few roles that people of color are up for in the movie business, the ones that can be obtained are scare in the types of characters created.
Need a maid? Cast a black or latina woman. Need a bad guy in an alley? Cast a black man. Need someone to trim you're the hedges in your newest film? Bring on a latino man for that role.
Sure, there may be some truth in all of this typecasting. People of color still make up a large percentage of the lowest paying jobs in America, so casting them in some of these roles as maid or cleaning person or nanny does make sense. However the problem is that these jobs aren't what define the entire group of these people. People of color do more than just act as affective labor. Yet, Hollywood seems to only think about people of color in a limited way when casting them on the silver screen.
But has this always been the case? Or is this problem around the lack of roles something as old as Hollywood?
In the newest play at the Goodman Theatre, By the Way, Meet Vera Stark, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage gives a look into this topic by giving us an intimate look into the fictional life of a black woman in early-Hollywood, Vera Stark (Tamberla Perry), who must navigate Hollywood. The play takes place in Hollywood in three different eras: 1933, 1973, and 2003.
The first part of the play is beautiful, upbeat and enraptures the audience. You will laugh, feel sad, and then laugh again due to such daring candor on the stage. Within the first act we meet Vera when she is the maid to a famous white actress, who is also a childhood friend, named Gloria Mitchell (Kara Zediker). Their relationship is a continual reminder throughout the play of the stark ways in which black and white actresses were -- and still to this day -- treated in Hollywood. Gloria is the 'darling' of the silver screen while Vera struggles to land roles that in the end seem to only perpetuate dangerous stereotypes about black people in America.
As we move onto the second act, the play seems to lose its footing as we are brought to a modern day symposium led by three academic folks who are analyzing the life and times of the fictional Vera Stark. By using 'found footage' of Vera on a 1970s talk show, we are given the complicated and disheartening stories of what became of Vera, which includes poverty, depression and alcoholism.
In this act we learn that after her one big break in the fictional movie The Belle of New Orleans, Vera found herself constantly stuck to this one role, never able to break free of it. This leads her down the road to general anger about how Hollywood treated her and the demise of her career.
I think this play is important, no matter the fact that the second act seems to not hold up as well as the first. By The Way, Meet Vera Stark is important because it unapologetically shows us that even though this story is set in the 1930s, it is still the reality of so many black actresses to this day. And even within this play, the lead actress herself cannot even escape this reality, because at the end of the day Tamberla Perry -- the actress who plays Vera -- is still playing a maid who becomes an actress who plays a maid. It's all quite existential.
This play acts as a reminder that since Hattie McDaniel won the Oscar for in 1939 for her supporting role as Mammy in the Hollywood classic, Gone with the Wind, there have only been four more black women to win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. As for the even more highly acclaimed award of Best Actress at the Oscars there has been only one black woman to win that: Halle Berry for her role in the film Monster's Ball.
It reminds us that black women are still fighting for space in Hollywood. And that by having plays like By the Way, Meet Vera Stark we are not only reminded that something needs to be done, but we also see some change occurring.
However, though change is occurring just by the production of this play, we as an audience are left with many questions and very little answers: Will this ever really change? Must we focus on the past to move into the future? And by showing films and plays of black women struggling to succeed and then failing, will it only continue to hinder these women much like it has in the past?
I think that these questions are a little too big for this play, but it gives us hope. Especially since the first step to solving a problem is admitting we have one, and that what Vera Stark forces us to do. She forces us to acknowledge that race is still an issue in America, especially on the stage and in the movies.
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