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Robrt Pela: Review of 'By the Way, Meet Vera Stark'

KJZZ’s theatre critic Robrt Pela reviews By The Way, Meet Vera Stark, now at the Herberger Theater Center in Phoenix.


Vera Stark is, like so many actresses who start out hungry and wind up legendary, alone on her own stage. She works alongside other actors only because she needs someone to talk to, but none—in her estimation, and in mine—are her equals.

Vera is a fictional character, drawn from life by playwright Lynn Nottage. Nicole Belit, the woman who plays her in the iTheatre Collaborative production of By the Way, Meet Vera Stark that just opened at the Herberger, is very real. The two women share this: They are alone onstage.

 In Act One, Vera is a beautiful, determined movie extra who dreams of a stardom not typically afforded to black performers in 1930s Tinseltown. She’s housemaid to Gloria Mitchell, an under-talented, overly dramatic movie star referred to as “America’s Little Sweetie Pie” and meant to recall silent film actress Mary Pickford. Vera scores an audition with the director of a film called Belle of New Orleans, and playing Gloria’s maid in the picture, Vera becomes a star.

When she returns to us in Act Two, it is 40 years later, and we’re reminded of what stardom once brought to black women of Hollywood’s golden age. Vera, like real-life stars Hattie McDaniel and Juanita Moore, is now an actress known for having played mammies and maids in movies starring famous white women. A little tipsy, she’s the guest on a cheesy talk show circa 1973. In a cheap gown, she sneers impatiently at both the audience and her host, and her haughty faux grandeur is both comical and heartbreaking.

Director Charles St. Clair finds the balance between Nottage’s dark comedy and darker commentary on race relations in Hollywood and beyond, moving as it should between reality and caricature. But Vera Stark isn’t intended as a one-woman show. It becomes one in this production because its supporting cast is no match for their leading lady.

Eyes pooling with tears, nostrils flaring, and with posture that suggests she’s swallowed a yardstick, Nicole Belit is a dazzling Vera Stark. Her second act performance provides wider range and the opportunity to play drunkenness, anger, and an aged actress’s scenery-chewing. But it’s the Vera of Act One who impresses: wildly romantic, full of energy, she aspires to a grander existence. Both versions of Vera are stunners, and are reason enough to see this otherwise uneven production.

Robrt Pela’s reviews appear in the Phoenix New Times . By the Way, Meet Vera Stark continues through the weekend at the Herberger Theater Center.