Vera Stark Spotlights Racial Realities, Resilience in Life of an Actress

In a 2014 interview, actress Viola Davis said, “I have gotten so many wonderful film roles, but I've gotten even more film roles where I haven't been the show. It's like I've been invited to a really fabulous party, only to hold up the wall. I wanted to be the show.”

Davis is far from the first to speak out about the representation of black actors and actresses in Hollywood. From Oct. 9 to 11, the Pomona College Department of Theatre put on its first production of the semester: “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark,” a play that focuses on the historical disparity of black roles in Hollywood. With its behind-the-scenes depiction of Hollywood, varied humor and strikingly significant themes, the play appeals to a range of audiences, as evidenced by the widely-attended showings.

The first half of the play follows the story of actress Vera Stark (Meghan Gwinn SC ‘19) in 1930s-era Hollywood as she struggles to catch a break despite the racial stereotypes and expectations of the time. While working as a maid for movie star Gloria Mitchell (Morgan Berlin PO ‘19), Vera seizes her chance to appear alongside Gloria in the movie “The Belle of New Orleans.” However, while Gloria plays the lead, Vera’s role is that of Tilly, the loyal servant who takes care of her mistress from beginning to end. Although Tilly’s role puts Vera in the spotlight, the character is also a source of controversy for her in the way it portrays her as stereotypically servile. As Vera’s future husband Leroy Barksdale (Miles Burton PO ’17) puts it, “Why are we still playing slaves? Shucks, it was hard enough getting free the first time.”

Part two of the play fast-forwards to 1973 and 2003, showing Vera’s last public appearance in an interview in conjunction with a colloquium analyzing her significance and later life. By 1973, Vera Stark appears fed up with the taboos regarding race, and the interview is fraught with racial tension. Although there are multiple hypotheses on her later disappearance, the colloquium cannot come to a consensus. The one fact that everyone can agree upon is that Vera has made an indelible mark in cinematic history.

Besides its thematic significance, “Vera Stark” also showcased strong technical aspects. The play was strewn with multiple interesting effects, from the appearance of smoking cigarettes to the large screen built into the set. The screen, the innovative idea of director Carolyn Ratteray, was used for transitions playing clips of “The Belle of New Orleans” and projecting images.

With a small cast of only nine people, many actors and actresses also played two characters, demonstrating their versatility. The production welcomed students from all 5Cs and grade levels, including a remarkable number of first-years.

“It was really fun playing Gloria Mitchell—everyone was really welcoming and outgoing, so it was great to work with juniors and sophomores from other colleges,” Morgan Berlin PO '19 said. “I got to meet other people from all around the school and hear different perspectives on how they’re pursuing their careers along with theater.”

Berlin also pointed out the largely unnoticed work of all the crew. Indeed, many toiled for hours working on the set, perfecting costumes, setting up lights, fixing makeup and more. 

“It was a really great experience,” said Kate Miller PO' 19, who worked on costuming and wardrobes. “I was so happy to be welcomed to the theater community, especially since it’s my first semester. Essentially, I helped with setting up, quick changes and keeping everything organized. It was a big time commitment, but because of the small cast, we weren’t too overwhelmed.”

Hard work pays off, as evidenced by the success of “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark.” This thought-provoking play, with its raw humor and dialogue, was a wonderful kick-off to the theater department’s year.

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