KINGSTON — The URI Theatre premiered “By The Way, Meet Vera Stark,” a cuttingly hilarious play from the mind of unprecedentedly successful two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage last weekend for the start of a two-week run of the production in the campus’ Will Theatre. Nottage has risen to success taking on the voices of the voiceless, the marginalized, and the exploited throughout her playwriting career.
Nottage received a B.A. in 1986 from Brown University and an M.F.A. in 1989 from the Yale University School of Drama. Her plays have been presented throughout the United States and Europe. She is a 2007 Fellow of the Macarthur Foundation, which “supports creative people, effective institutions, and influential networks building a more just, verdant, and peaceful world.”
Nottage wrote “Ruined,” a play about the exploitation of female refugees in the African Congo, after visiting East Africa several times to research the issue. The show opened in Chicago in 2007, but was transferred to an Off-Broadway theater later on in the year, and earned the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2009.
Nottage followed up “Ruined” with “Sweat,” a poignant look at life in the year 2000, bouncing back and forth in time telling stories of opportunity, loss, and the deleterious effects of capitalism on the working-class town Reading, Pennsylvania. “Sweat” ran locally throughout November 2022 at The Gamm Theater in Warwick. That show earned Nottage her second Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2017.
“By The Way, Meet Vera Stark” debuted in 2011 on Broadway and has been entertaining audiences since. “By The Way, Meet Vera Stark” is a satire examining the early years of the African American woman in Hollywood. Vera Stark (Kafui Glover ’23 of Providence) is a maid who works for actress Gloria Mitchell (EJ Caraveo ’24 of Tiverton), but dreams of becoming an actress herself. The role of Vera is based on the life of actress Theresa Harris, who played maids and servants to white actors for decades.
Through a series of serendipitous meetings, Vera, too, is cast in a film for which Gloria is preparing to audition and screen test, “The Belle of New Orleans.”
The play takes the audience through the 1930s, where Stark and her two roommates Lottie McBride (Sabrina Youn ’24 of Central Falls) and Anna Mae Simpkins (Ayrin Ramirez Peguero of Providence) land roles in the movie as well.
As expected, Gloria Mitchell enjoys the fame, fortune, and notoriety of a 40-year acting career, while Stark, who works just as hard for just as long, ends up without accolades, a veteran of two troubled marriages, and is rumored to be homeless with an alcohol problem.
The story was set in the 1930s, but the story jumps to 2003 to present the unfortunate consequences of the passage of time, where Stark’s career — and eventual unraveling — in 1973, is examined. The cast dances deftly around racial stereotypes, theories about Stark’s whereabouts and health, and the public’s emotions surrounding her career and eventual downfall.
The cast of seven, most of whom took on dual roles to present the 1930s and 2003 views, were remarkably adept in becoming who they needed to be at that moment. A notable performance was made by Providence’s David Santana, who nailed the silver-tongued and charismatic Leroy Barksdale, who would become Stark’s first husband, then pivoted to become Herb Forrester, the host of the 2003 colloquium on Stark.
Sabrina Youn was equally brilliant as Lottie McBride, Starks comedic foil in Act I, and colloquium panelist Carmen Levy-Green in Act II. Ayrin Ramirez Peguero ping-ponged between her character Anna Mae Simpkins and her alter ego from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in Act I to activist and writer Afua Assata Ejobo in Act II.
The sets were thoughtfully assembled, and the films that were shown during Act II truly highlighted the quality of the cast’s acting and the production team’s filmmaking and editing skills.
“By The Way, Meet Vera Stark” runs through Sunday in the Will Theatre at the Fine Arts Center, located at 105 Upper College Road in Kingston. Shows are scheduled for 7:30 p.m. tonight through Saturday and for 2 p.m. on Sunday. Tickets are $20 for the general public and $15 for senior citizens and URI students, faculty, and staff. Tickets can be purchased online or by calling 401-874-5843.
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