Amanda Detmer and Sanaa Lathan photo from the Geffen
It was an unexpected pleasure. I had very little foreknowledge of the new play at Westwood's Geffen Playhouse, only that it had been written by Lynn Nottage, an Afro-American woman who won a Pulitzer Prize for her powerful play, Ruined, which I had seen at the Geffen a year or so ago... a stage work set in a brothel in the Congo which remained seared in my brain for a long, long time. So when my companion, publicist Caroline Graham, and I entered the theater last night, we had no idea what to expect. Which is always a delicious pleasure in the theater. Being the incurable optimist I am, I always know that I am about to see a stunning work which will change my life.
Vera Stark holding court at a TV show later in life.
Well, By The Way, Meet Vera Start, didn't change my life, but it did give me a great deal of pleasure, as well as little pain, as I tried all night to puzzle out the ending and collect my thoughts for this epistle. The moment the show started, I was enchanted by the jazzy setting... Hollywood in the sleazy pre-code 30s of which I had read extensively and knew something about. My film production of the Billie Holiday story, Lady Sing The Blues was also set in the show business in that era. The story of a powerful black woman with a driving ambition for success and stardom. And I also produced another film, For Love of Ivy, in which singer Abbey Lincoln co-starred with Sidney Poitier, another tale of a powerful black woman with a drive to rise her station in life. So I was familiar with and happy about the powerful black women on the stage last night who had such a passion for success that nothing was going to stand in their way. Obviously Lynn had researched the period carefully, and I later learned from an interview she gave the New York Times that the inspiration for this show had been a movie from that early decade, Baby Face (1933), which starred a seductive Barbara Stanwyck and a young black actress named Theresa Harris, her almost-co star, sharing screen time and many scenes. She said that Harris, while playing a maid, was a sweet-talking strong companion who was a real friend to the lead. It gave the playwright the incentive to research other such black female roles of the '30s, discovering there were several such strong black actresses who fought for the right to work their way into real roles. This was the inspiration for her Vera Stark. (Incidentally, Billie Holiday played a small maid's role in a New Orleasns-set film with Louis Armstrong and told me she absolutely hated the experience.)
Vera meets the love of her life, played by Kevin T. Carroll.
According to her bio, Ms. Nottage, 47, had won a MacArthur "genius" grant as well as the Pulitzer for Ruined. I tried to look for her in the lobby after the opening, but she was not in my ken. The star of the show, an absolutely stunning Sanaa Lathan, was present, and I learned her name means "brilliance" in Swahili. Fitting. I told her I enjoyed her in the movie, Love and Basketball.
I suppose I should briefly outline the first act of this startling work, when we meet Vera Stark working as a maid to a feather-brained, young, blond actress, Gloria Mitchell (played by Amanda Deymer), known as "America's little sweetie pie," the Lindsay Lohan of her day. But Vera has bigger ambitions, and wants the speaking role of the maid in the script the ditsy blonde is studying. There are two other wonderful actresses in her life and ours: a portly, acerbically funny Lottie (Kimberly Hebert Gregory) who once played in Broadway musical reviews, and Anna Mae, slinky, vamp passing as a Brazilian heiress (Merle Dandridge)....all three sharing a flat and clothing somewhere in tinseltown. Vera meets an aspiring, attractive young musician, Leroy Barksdale (Kevin T. Carroll), who is working as the chauffeur for the pretensious German director (Mather Zickel) of the anti-bellum New Orleans film. Vera smartly asks him a question which resonated with me through the night: "How come nobody in Los Angles actually does what they do?" The audience chortled at the truth of it. There are some hilarious scenes of drinking, partying, and everyone smokes incessantly. (I came to Hollywood in 1952 for the first time with a load of those big silver Ronson table lighters to place them via set dressers on movie sets....and was astonished to spot a half-dozen of them here.) The studio head, played by Spencer Garrett, looks just like Louis B. Mayer and speaks just like a Warners studio head of today. The able director, Jo Bonney, occasionally has a hard time trying to reign in the sketch comedy, but all in all does a very capable job.
Years later Vera meets with Gloria at a TV interview show and the sparks fly.
The second act changed gears dramatically, with three of the actors showing up as pontificating pundits who are puzzling out the career of Vera, who has disappeared years before. The pompous moderator is a spitting image of Richard Pryor (which I know, since he had his first major role in my Diana Ross film) And then we cut back-and-forth to a 1973 TV interview by a Merv Griffin-replica when Vera, by now doing an act at the Follies in Vegas, wearing a Bob Mackie-like gown (shades of Diana!) and obviously worn by alcohol, is reunited with the blond star of her youth, now a mink-coated harridan married to the conductor of the London Symphony (which broke up my British companion.) There is a confusing coda at the end, as to what really happened to Vera... did she commit suicide or die a wizened old lady in a home in Santa Monica...and for one moment, I was sure that the blond 30s starlet was going to reveal that she also was part Negro... but it was only hinted at. Neil Patel did the set design, and it is smart and moves brilliantly. My affection for Ms. Lathan, who I later recognized from Contagion and Raisin in the Sun, is boundless. And yes, the show is actually both a hoot and deep reflection of the racial boundaries which existed then and still exist in our nation. Go to the Geffen (310-208-5454 or www.geffenplayhouse,com) and spend a wonderful evening with old Hollywood. It actually was a pretty fun place.
Sanaa Lathan would have been a star in any period of Hollywood.
To subscribe to Jay Weston's Restaurant Newsletter ($70 for twelve monthly issues), email him at firstname.lastname@example.org