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Theater Thu Apr 25 2013
During Hollywood's "golden era," roles for black actors were notoriously scarce in both quantity and quality; as such, they were mostly relegated to playing butlers, maids and mammies, and in many cases, they were left to struggle as "unknowns" in the industry. And while actresses from that period including Pearl Bailey (St. Louis Blues), Lena Horne (Stormy Weather) and Dorothy Dandridge (Carmen Jones) achieved fame, many, like Nina Mae McKinney and Theresa Harris, who did get roles, went virtually unrecognized.
In Lynn Nottage's By the Way, Meet Vera Stark (fueled by Harris' story), the plight of the unnoticed--and often uncredited--black actress in Hollywood during the 1930s is explored. Here, Chicago's Tamberla Perry, who stars in the title role, talks about the play, working again with director Chuck Smith, and challenges black actresses face today.
It's been said that this play is the ultimate story of race and fame in Hollywood--what does that statement mean to you?
It's definitely about black women in the 30s trying to make something of themselves and being shackled to these stereotypical roles and what they did to overcome and add a little more depth to them. It's about that journey from where we were to where we are now.
The play is set during the time when roles for black women were extremely limited--in quantity and variety--or were non-existent, even. As you were preparing to play the title character, what were your thoughts going in?
I had to be real cognizant of really being in this moment--being a black woman in 1933--and really trying to get out of my head how far we have come in this business. For me, it was about being in the moment and not knowing what could happen for this character all these years later.
Eighty years have passed since the "Vera Stark era" and in terms of roles, many black actresses lament things still haven't changed much; most recently, Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis received lots of flak for playing maids in The Help. What did you think about that?
I was a little disappointed. They were given these roles and it wasn't like they were playing stereotypical roles--this is what really happened in history. My grandmother cleaned houses. I have an aunt who cleaned houses. I don't think they did anything that was offensive; to me, I think that they did what they had to do with the roles they were given. Again, this was reality. It wasn't something that was fictitious. They were stories that needed to be told and I think they both told them beautifully. I was disappointed by all who were offended by what they did.
When it comes to landing major roles, do you think things are more difficult for black actresses on TV? Film? Stage? All three?
It's difficult across the board. First of all, there are not a lot of roles that are specifically written for us. What producers and directors in all three of these fields will do is "color blind casting"--they'll write something and say that this person can be black or white or Asian, but a not a lot is specifically written for us. When I go on auditions now, I am sometimes the only black girl in the room and that's because they've kept things open, but not because something is written for us. Here in Chicago, theater wise, I go up against all my friends for most of these roles and it's usually one or perhaps two shows that are specifically looking for African-American women in a certain demographic.
Nottage based By the Way, Meet Vera Stark on the story of actress Theresa Harris, an "unknown scene stealer" who held her own in Baby Face with Barbara Stanwyck. Would you recommend this play as a springboard to learn about other little known black actresses?
Absolutely. People can walk away and also know what black women brought to these roles and to these stages. It should be an inspiration for people to want to learn more and more.
Do you see any similarities between yourself and Vera Stark?
Vera Stark is a go-getter; she is not going to let anything stop her. There is a scene in the play where she actually did something in front of people that I never thought that I would do. When I read that scene or when I'm in rehearsal, I often think about what I say I'm not going to do or what roles I will not accept; however if the money is not right in my bank account, I might take that role. These are different things that Vera was challenged with and things that "Tam" is challenged with today. It's a struggle deciding to go on auditions for something you know you don't respect, but you know you also need the money. That's the same thing Vera went through.
The play is directed by Chuck Smith, whom you've worked with before. What would you say you've learned from your time working together?
This is my second time working with him on a full production--Race was the first full production I got to be in with him. But we've worked together before that; he's also a resident director of MPAACT, the theater company I'm a member of. Chuck is a real simple dude. He's not gonna get all overly complicated with you about a character; he is really about that picture on stage and he is a master at creating a beautiful picture that the audience will enjoy. He's pretty simple and what that has taught me is that everything doesn't have to be so complicated. Sometimes you get so in your head with these shows and these characters that you're just doing a little too much. Chuck taught me to simplify things and just be me.
How do you think this play will resonate with aspiring actresses--of any ethnic background?
I think the lesson is persistence--this is a show about persistence and overcoming obstacles. If it's something that you want, do it. Stick with it. I had a conversation with a friend about one of Chicago's theater royalty, in my opinion, who has decided to go back to medical school. I was befuddled when I heard this news; I mean, I don't know the reasons surrounding this [decision] but I can imagine it's that life gets in the way--bills, kids, and other things, that need to be taken care of. And this business, financially, is not consistent, so it can become hard. But if it's something that you want, I think from this play, people will get that you've got to stick with it.
By the Way, Meet Vera Stark opens April 27 and runs through June 2 at the Goodman's Albert Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn; show days and times vary. Tickets are $25-$81 and are on sale online. For more information, call 312-443-3800.
Tamberla Perry photo courtesy of Goodman Theatre.