Role Model

ANGELA ASHMAN

You can't blame Lynn Nottage for needing a little comic relief. While writing about the heartbreaking lives of women in a Congolese brothel for her 2009 Pulitzer-winning play Ruined, she was simultaneously chipping away at a script inspired by the Hollywood screwball comedies of the 1930s. The result is By the Way, Meet Vera Stark, opening Off-Broadway in April. An aspiring black actress, Vera works as the maid for a white starlet, and using some sneaky tactics, finally gets her big break playing a maid opposite her boss in a Gone With the Wind-type epic.

Vera is what Nottage calls a "warrior woman," a fighter who will do whatever it takes to survive. Nottage modeled her after actresses such as Theresa Harris, Mildred Washington and Nina
Mae McKinney, all noted for stealing scenes from the white leads. "They had the looks, the talent, and the gumption to be center stage, but because of racism they were never permitted to take center stage," she says.

Ultimately, Vera finds that though the film earns her great acclaim, she must pay a heavy price: The lowly maid character defines the rest of her career, and she is blamed years later for perpetuating negative stereotypes of African-American women. "She becomes a prisoner of this role," Nottage says.

The dearth of black nominees at this year's Oscars was a stark reminder that not much has changed. "Why doesn't Hollywood represent the America that we live in?" she asks. "I feel that so many of the films we see are very far outside of our culture. It's this imaginary world where people of color don't exist. And if they do exist, they're once again cast in marginal roles."

So, Nottage, a Brooklyn native and warrior herself, continues to work to bring great roles to black actors. She's currently writing the screenplay of Ruined for HBO and Harpo Films, Oprah Winfrey's company, and rumor has it that the talk show queen will be starring. "I've heard that, too," she says slyly about the rumors. "I don't know, but I would hope that she would."


BY THE WAY, MEET VERA STARK IS CURRENTLY SHOWING AT THE SECOND STAGE THEATRE, 305 W. 43RD ST., NEW YORK. 

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