Oct. 18--If an actress is lucky enough to have a successful career, she'll probably play at least one role that mirrors part of her real life.
The reflection might be distorted, but the image, nonetheless, is based on something real.
"By the Way, Meet Vera Stark," which began previews this week at the Alliance Theatre and officially opens next week, has been a bit like that for its lead actress, Toni Trucks. Written by the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and MacArthur "genius grant" fellow Lynn Nottage, the play is largely crafted with the language, pacing and feel of a screwball, 1930s comedy. And perhaps laughter is best because the play tackles topics that can stop a sober conversation cold: sexual agency, racial identity, activism, calculated ambition and the politics of Hollywood's color line.
At the play's center is Vera Stark, an African-American woman trying to get her big break in 1930s Hollywood. Until then, she performs her duties as a maid and confidante to the character Gloria Mitchell, an actress better known as "America's Little Sweetie Pie." While the Mitchell character is reminiscent of real film starlets such as Gloria Swanson, Barbara Stanwyck or Rosalind Russell, Stark represents Hollywood's early black actresses, women who were seen on film but rarely listed in credits. Their lines were as inconsequential as their roles: house maid, barmaid, slave, maybe a nightclub singer.
Nottage modeled Stark after the prolific black actress Theresa Harris. Harris appeared in at least 80 films from the 1930s to 1950s including classics such as "The Women," "Miracle on 34th Street" and the notorious "Baby Face." Yet her name is all but forgotten.
Much has changed for black actresses in 80 years since Harris entered Hollywood. Trucks is evidence of it. Trucks has portrayed the curly-haired, red-eyed vampire, Mary, in the "Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn 2," and an in-law opposite Annette Bening and Antonio Banderas in last year's romantic comedy "Ruby Sparks." She has played a gay bride-to-be on TVLand's "The Soul Man" with Cedric the Entertainer, and an ill-fated nurse on the current CBS drama "Hostages" with Toni Collette. And she'll appear in the upcoming Steve Carell film, "Alexander, and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day."
With all the visibility black actresses have achieved, they still must navigate a minefield of public judgment. Witness the backlash faced by the African-American cast members of "The Help," or the complaint that -- at least on the big screen -- black actresses are cast as sidekicks in mainstream movies but rarely as leading ladies. And given the few high-profile, big-budget roles, what compromises must an actress make for a plum part?
These issues are at the heart of "Vera Stark." For one fair-skinned character, getting a chance means passing herself off as something other than the African American she is. For another it means playing to a stereotype in the hope that she might one day crush it on screen.
"This play will reveal how far we've come, but I also think that in a weird way it will also reveal how far we still have to go," said Trucks recently after a rehearsal at the Alliance. "When I think about Hattie McDaniel, Theresa Harris or Ethel Waters, they were actors. Actors live job to job, moment to moment and I question whether they were thinking, 'I wonder what this role will look like in 40 years. I wonder what people are going to say in 70 years about this.' "
During early cast readings of the play, race was almost another character in the room. So much so that the actors spent a good deal of time talking about their own experiences, said Leah Gardiner, director of the Alliance's production.
"We learned we had four biracial women in the room and that was the first time in my career that has ever happened," said Gardiner, who was also an associate producer on this year's acclaimed indie film "Mother of George" starring "The Walking Dead" lead actress Danai Gurira. "We needed to explore the complicated nature of race in a way that was safe, and with this work I think we've cut a small slit into a very big issue in this country."
For Trucks, her path into acting began in community theater, in a small town next door to the once booming African-American resort community of Idlewild, Mich. Though Trucks was born a generation after the community's heyday, its legend as a hub for top black performers held sway in Trucks' home. Trucks eventually graduated from the University of Michigan's musical theater school and studied classical methods in London.
After graduation she cut her teeth in New York and regional theater. Her first break in television came when she was cast as the female lead in Showtime's version of "Barbershop," based on the hit movie series, but the show lasted one season.
She landed a minor role in the movie version of "Dreamgirls," but soon she found herself wedged between two warring perceptions of her. On the one hand, here is Trucks, a petite, stunningly beautiful young woman, whose lithe movements hinted at her training as a dancer. With her straight auburn hair pulled back in a ponytail, her face is the color of a roux just starting to darken. On the other hand her portrayal of the loud, brassy, stylist Terri Jones in "Barbershop" was palpable.
So, how to cast her?
"After 'Barbershop,' I did encounter people who'd say, 'No, she's a little bit too ghetto for us.' " said Trucks. "Here I am, having come from London studying Shakespeare and people are going, 'Yeah, she's a little too this or that.' Well you know what? Shame, on you. I fooled you didn't I?"
On the flip side, there were casting agents back in New York who wouldn't cast her in black roles because they said she didn't look black enough. She even auditioned for the 2011 New York production of "Vera Stark," but for the role of Annie Mae, the character who is passing. When the Alliance's production of 'Vera Stark' came around, she went for the starring role.
"I said, 'Let me get this,' because it just proves my point about the spectrum of our perceptions about black people," Trucks said. "I think it's good to remind people that just because what you have in your head about what a black experience is, and if I don't fit that idea, it does not mean that mine is not a black experience. My experience is valid and good and true. I love that this play experiences it too."
For all of that, what resonates most with Trucks about her character is Starks' ambition and determination to pursue a dream that could at any moment morph into something ugly. As she went through a recent rehearsal, Trucks made decisions about her character as confidently as a veteran would. Gardiner gave her room, pleased as the character before her deepened with each choice Trucks made.
"I'm learning from Vera," Trucks said after the rehearsal. "She's maddening for me as an actor because she's the straight man in a lot of hilarity. But Vera is hungry and tenacious. Those are the bits of her that I love."
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