On an exceptionally balmy summer night in 1947, a fire alarm pierced the midnight calm of a sleepy community in Burbank, California. An out of control fire raged in an enormous storage warehouse on the back lot of Celestial Pictures. Five engine companies heroically battled the blaze well past dawn. Unbeknownst to them, the warehouse contained hundreds of highly flammable nitrite film negatives, resulting in a fire that spread dangerously fast. By the time the last flame was extinguished, nearly all of the original negatives and prints of films made by Celestial Pictures were destroyed. It was a monumental loss.
On that night in 1947, the film industry also lost something else: African American actress Vera Stark. She spent nearly two decades on contract with Celestial Pictures, and as such the fire destroyed much of the celluloid record of her early film career. Indeed, Vera’s rich cinematic legacy was destroyed in the fire. “The Belle of New Orleans” is one of the few surviving films that feature the un-burnished and nascent talent of Vera Stark.
When I was eight years old, I saw “The Belle of New Orleans”, and since that first encounter I have been hungry to know and understand Vera Stark, the actress as she was before she vanished from our collective memories. There was a time when Vera was one of the most promising African American actresses in Hollywood, commanding a salary unprecedented for a woman of color. In my book “Hollywood Dreams” (Robeson Press), I attempt to retrace the tragic life and career of Vera Stark, and in doing so tell the story of a generation of African American performers whose careers and contributions to early Hollywood were obscured by racism. So I was initially leery and suspicious, when I learned about the play “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark.” The Pulitzer-prize winning playwright, Lynn Nottage, claimed to shed some much-needed light on an actress in need of resurrection. And thankfully, I had the opportunity to sit down for an informal conversation with Ms. Nottage. I found her to be open, funny and quite passionate on the subject of Vera Stark. As a scholar and avid film buff, I entered the conversation skeptical, but I was quickly won over and eventually allowed her to include my voice in the play. (Below is an excerpt from a longer interview, which can be found on my website: www.findingverastark.com)
CARMEN: A fire destroyed much of our record of Vera Stark’s career, so how did you learn about her?
LYNN: Like so many of us, I first came to love Vera in the movie “The Belle of New Orleans”. But, I will be honest: it wasn’t easy to piece together the fragments of her life. Actresses like Vera Stark are elusive, and because of the limited information in circulation it’s hard to really get to know them. There are a number of well-documented iconic African American actresses from the 1930’s and 40’s, however we know most of them via the cringe inducing and stereotypical roles they were relegated to playing. But, interestingly enough, actresses like Vera Stark who attempted to present more complicated and realistic portrayals of black women were overlooked, marginalized by the industry because they didn’t feed Hollywood’s warped notion of what it meant to be black. So, trying to find film clips and articles about Vera proved nearly impossible. I was fortunate enough to encounter your website (www.findingverastark.com) and that of Herb Forrester (www.meetverastark.com). Herb proved to be a fountain of information, and was invaluable to my process.
CARMEN: Why did you decide to write a play about Vera Stark?
LYNN: I’ve always had an incredible fascination with old black and white films from the 1930’s. When I was young, I’d stay up late into the night watching them. It was like rummaging through your favorite antique shop looking for hidden treasures.
CARMEN: Yes. I totally relate. Old movies were my best friends and sometimes even my babysitter.
LYNN: I loved the old films, but I was always terribly embarrassed by the grotesque and stereotypical ways African Americans were portrayed. When black actors appeared on screen, I’d find myself temporarily taken out of the film, and often had to recalibrate my emotions before jumping back into the narrative. But every once in a while I’d catch a glimpse of an actor in a film who seemed to be peeking out and commenting on the world beyond the mask. So, with Vera Stark I wanted to explore the life of actors beyond the mask. I decided to use humor to uncover the painful and passionate journey that they (then and even now) are forced to take in order to ply their trade. I also wanted to engage with the images of blackness on screen, and try to make sense of the difficult choices that actors had to make at times when their options were very limited.
CARMEN: My mother came of age in the sixties and was always very critical of my interest in black folk in early cinema. She was dismissive of many of the actors, because she still very much lived in the shadow and sting of the stereotypical characters they portrayed. She could be quite unforgiving
LYNN: I understand, and it is easy to feel that way. I certainly have my moments. However, the play is not an indictment of the actors, but rather an exploration of their very difficult journey. I recognize that the images on the screen are painful, but they are not the totality of who those actors were. And that is what I’m exploring. Who were they?
CARMEN: What was the most surprising thing you discovered while writing the play?
LYNN: I think the most surprising discovery I made while writing the play was how closely Vera’s struggles mirror those of African American actresses today. Has there been progress? Yes, of course. I don’t want to diminish that. But, it’s shocking and frustrating how the film industry’s perspective on African American women remains so narrow and distorted. I am constantly pushing up against it with my own work.
CARMEN: What can you tell me about Gloria Mitchell, who starred in “The Belle of New Orleans”? I have my own thoughts, which you definitely touch upon in the play.
LYNN: Gloria Mitchell was a talented actress. Like Vera, much of her legacy was destroyed in that now infamous fire at Celestial Pictures. It was a real tragedy, because Gloria was one of the biggest stars in Hollywood, but unfortunately “The Belle of New Orleans” is one of the only complete films that capture her allure.
CARMEN: How do you think Vera Stark would feel about the play?
LYNN: I hope that Vera would be flattered. I think that she might take issue with some of the things that we expose, but I feel it is an accurate, though irreverent, take on old Hollywood. Like you, Vera is a fictional character I created to draw people into a dialogue about race and representation in early cinema.
Geffen Playhouse Production photos
by Michael Lamont