When Sanaa Lathan enters in the second act of "By the Way, Meet Vera Stark," she is wrapped in a multicolored muumuu with feathers on the sleeves, her face lined, her movements languorous. She steps to the edge of the stage and performs a sultry rendition of "Fly Me to the Moon," complete with a seductive wink at the audience.
The year is 1973, and movie star Vera Stark has seen better days. Still, her assured sexiness recalls Eartha Kitt.
The homage is no accident.
"I grew up in the theater," says Lathan. "My mother was one of the original Alvin Ailey dancers, and was in 'The Wiz' and 'Timbuktu' on Broadway - and Eartha Kitt was in 'Timbuktu.' So as a very young kid, I was around Eartha Kitt all the time. My mother says I was always imitating her and doing her little growl."
That backstory is one of the happy coincidences that helped shape "Vera Stark," now at Second Stage on W. 43rd St. Beginning in 1933, the play deconstructs the competition between white movie star Gloria Mitchell (Stephanie J. Block), and her black maid, Vera Stark, who has her own dreams of the big screen.
Playwright Lynn Nottage has known Lathan since 1995, when she gave Lathan one of her first New York roles in "Por'knockers." She was one reason Lathan returned to work so soon after her run in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" in London.
"After doing 'Cat on a Hot Tin Roof' for six months, I was like, okay, I'm going to take a break. I won't do a play for another five years," says Lathan. "But you can't turn down something as special as this. Not only is she a great character with a huge range, but it's funny and it's saying something relevant."
"There are only a handful of Hollywood actresses who have the chops to do theater," adds Nottage, a 2009 Pulitzer Prize winner for "Ruined." "Sanaa has insight into the character as someone who's dealt with Hollywood and known the struggles. She brings the frustrations of an African-American woman trying to get cast in the industry today."
When we meet Vera Stark in Act I, she is toiling for the high-maintenance diva nicknamed "America's Little Sweetheart," while keeping an eye out for her own big break.
She worries she'll have to play to stereotype to get cast, and when the chance comes along to play Gloria's slave in an antebellum Southern epic, Vera must reconcile ambition and self-respect.
"She's a passionate young woman going after her dreams of being an actress, and she doesn't want the reality of the situation to stop her," says Lathan.
Vera Stark is based loosely on performers in the 1920s and early '30s, a time when Hollywood had recently acquired sound, but when the Production Code restricting content hadn't yet been enforced. Strong female characters and discussions of race, as well as violence and sexual innuendo, were common on screen. Some black actors carved out niches.
"I was fascinated by an actress named Theresa Harris, who was really quite a lovely presence in films like 'Baby Face' and 'Jezebel' and 'The Flame of New Orleans,' " says Nottage. "She was relegated to playing sidekicks and maids, and you could see her wanting to burst out of those roles."
Act II rockets forward. While Vera reminisces on a talk show in 1973, a panel of academics looks on from 2003, debating her impact on the industry. The point is clear: Though Vera fought her way into auditions in the 1930s, the casting of African-American women still deserves scrutiny.
"The majority of African-American actresses that I know still say they're not offered a wide variety of roles," says Nottage. "If it's a judge, yes. But if it's the lead prosecuting attorney, no. You have the testy, hefty, authoritarian black woman who's sort of neutered and doesn't have a life beyond the bench. She's there to deliberate for all of two minutes, and then disappears."
There are multilayered portrayals to be found. Nottage admires TV shows such as "Southland" with Regina King, and "Hawthorne" with Jada Pinkett Smith, but she says they are few and far between.
"I feel very blessed, or lucky, and I've also been very picky," says Lathan of her own casting experiences. "To this day, there are a lot of things I won't go into or I'll pass on."
"In many ways, she's the exception to the rule," Nottage says of Lathan. "She is the star that she is because she's managed to break through barriers."
Born in New York City, Lathan went to college at UC Berkeley and came back East to attend the Yale School of Drama. She was nominated for a Tony for the 2004 Broadway revival of "A Raisin in the Sun," in which she played opposite Sean Combs. In between, she has built her brand as a romantic heroine in films such as "Love & Basketball" and "Brown Sugar."
"Those are movies that speak to a whole segment of people that want to see themselves live out fantasies of love," she says. "Plus, I got to do 'Alien vs. Predator,' where I save the world. I played a vampire in 'Blade.' I played the bad girl in 'Out of Time.' I've had a wide range of characters in film and theater, so I feel very positive about my career."
This fall, she'll appear in Steven Soderbergh's ensemble thriller "Contagion," with Matt Damon, Kate Winslet and Jude Law. She plays the wife of the head of the Centers for Disease Control (Laurence Fishburne) as a terrifying new virus sweeps the globe.
Nottage, meanwhile, has risen to prominence as one of the most lauded contemporary playwrights. Before writing "Ruined" — set in a Congolese brothel during a civil war — she traveled to Uganda to interview women and girls who had been caught up in the conflict.
Now she's adapting "Ruined" for HBO and Oprah Winfrey's Harpo Productions. It's safe to say she shares the quality she praises in Lathan — an ability to bridge the gap between theater and film.
One of Theresa Harris' talents, her singing, is reflected in "Vera Stark." It was another lucky coincidence that Lathan could carry a tune. The script calls for pop, blues and that jazzy entrance number inspired by Eartha Kitt.
"We didn't ask if she could sing," says Nottage. "It was a pleasant surprise. I think she surprises herself sometimes."
After singing and smoking cigarettes over the course of the play, Lathan's routine revolves around two words: vocal rest.
"I've been doing my research about how to keep my voice," she says. "I know all the rules: No alcohol, lots of sleep, no talking after the show."
She pauses, considering the prescription. "I'm not going through all that! But I'll get as much sleep as I can."
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