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Arts & Culture

Who Hollywood Leaves Out

“By the Way, Meet Vera Stark” Mines Comedy, Grapples With Racism, Sexism in Show Business

By Jessica Weiss ’05

A Black woman holds a white woman's hand as the white woman lounges on a chaise

Vera Stark (right, Jordan Embrack ’25) practices lines with her employer, Hollywood star Gloria Mitchell (Karenna Foley ’23), known as “America’s little sweetie pie” in the new production of “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark.”

Photos by David Andrews

Many people have never heard of Theresa Harris, a Black television and film actress active in the 1930s whose life and career inspired playwright Lynn Nottage’s 2011 play, “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark,” currently being presented by the School of Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies at The Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center.

And that’s kind of the point.

Despite her talent and drive, Harris, the daughter of former sharecroppers from Louisiana, rarely rose above the role of a maid in Hollywood movies—a common plight for many Black actresses of the time.

Both a comedy and a look into the TV and film industry, “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark” explores this dynamic through the life and career of the fictional titular heroine, who arrives in Hollywood with big dreams. In 1933, after several years working as a maid for the movie star Gloria Mitchell (“America’s little sweetie pie”), she lands her first major on-screen role—as Mitchell’s character’s maid. While her performance turns out to be groundbreaking, the play’s second act jumps decades into the future to wrestle with Vera’s controversial legacy.

Kennedy Tolson ’23, a double major in theatre and communication, plays Vera’s friend and roommate Lottie, another aspiring Black actress. She said it wasn’t difficult to imagine and embody the climate in which Vera and Lottie existed—because in many ways it still rings true: “So many issues the play talks about I feel like I’ve struggled with too,” she said.

For instance, just as Vera grapples with being forced to act out racist stereotypes, Tolson said she has often questioned whether the roles she’s played as a Black woman in theater are in the service of the audience, of art or herself—and whether they’re ultimately helpful or harmful.

“This play has brought a lot of issues into focus for me and has been a great culmination for my time at UMD,” Tolson said. “It’s helped me sharpen my intentions in theater and the arts.”

Professor Scot Reese, co-director of the production, said audience members at The Clarice will find a diverse cast, beautiful costumes and an impressive set. In spite of the play’s focus on serious issues, it’s “clever, playful and wildly entertaining,” Reese said, and attendees should expect to laugh. “Honey makes the medicine go down,” he said.

Two Black women look at magazines

Lottie (Kennedy Tolson ’23) and Vera talk about being Black actresses in Hollywood.

Actors on a purple lit stage

Gloria hosts Russian film director Maxmillian Von Oster (second from left, Ryan Nock ’23), Von Oster’s date Anna Mae (far left, Gabrielle Ryan ’24) and Hollywood studio mogul Fredrick Slasvick (far right, Nelson Chen ’24) at her house. Vera and Lottie serve guests at the bar.

A Black woman holds a blue folder and stands behind a bench

Vera Stark has big dreams to star in movies.

A woman in an Afro and bright pink fur-trimmed dress sits between two men

In 1973, Vera appears on the famous “Brad Donovan Show” (Donovan is played by Chen) along with guest Peter Rhys-Davies, a British blues rocker (Nock).

Three Black people talk while sitting on stools

In 2003, an academic panel wrestles with the career and legacy of Vera Stark (from left, Ryan, Tolson and Robbie Duncan ’23).

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