In April-May 2013 I was lucky enough to do some dramaturgy work on the Goodman Theatre’s production of “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark” by Lynne Nottage, directed by Chuck Smith. Below is an article I wrote on the history of the representation of Black women in American cinema. The Goodman’s run closed last month, but if you ever get the chance to see the play I would recommend it!
Beyond Vera Stark: Hollywood’s Forgotten History of African American Actresses*
by JAMILA WOODS
She wears a white apron tied around her plump frame, a kerchief knotted to her head, and sports a wide-toothed grin. As James Baldwin once asked, “How many times have we seen her?” From 20th century minstrel show stages, to pancake boxes, to Hollywood screens, her name has changed but her features have always remained about the same. The housemaid, servant, or “Mammy” character has become one of the most iconic portrayals of African American women in American media to date. But while America knows her character well, the names and faces of the actresses who portrayed her throughout Hollywood’s early years are not as popular in the public mind.
Lynne Nottage’s By the Way, Meet Vera Stark attempts to introduce today’s theatre audience to one of these lesser known film actresses who portrayed archetypal maid figures on the big screen. The play gives us a two-part cross section of the life and afterlife of little known film star Vera Stark**, beginning with her first major screen debut in Hollywood in 1933, then jumping forward to a modern-day academic panel exploring the life of the late starlet, reeling through replicated footage of her 1973 talk show interview on the Brad Donovan Show.
The audience is provided a fascinating look into the life of a talented actress who many believe failed to receive the critical acceptance and recognition she deserved. Like many black Hollywood actresses of her time, many of the details of Vera’s story are still largely unknown. Yet the mysterious gaps in her narrative often prove just as intriguing as the parts of the story we do know. As Nottage pieces together the tale of Stark’s forgotten career, it is important to understand that Stark was not alone in her journey and struggle for work and decent representation in the film industry.
In 1929, the crash of the stock market became the first of two major developments in American society that had critical effects on the role of African American women in Hollywood films. Hollywood’s pre-Depression era representation of blacks had been blatantly negative, often portraying slaves as evil insurgents threatening the white race (e.g. Birth of A Nation, 1915.)
The Great Depression left the economy in shambles and highlighted growing tensions between racial groups. In response, American cinema began to take on the role of providing escapism for the masses during a time of crisis. This led to a series of southern epic films set in peaceful plantations meant to remind viewers of the “good old days” of American prosperity. In these films, slavery was portrayed in a gracious light, featuring happy slaves who sang spirituals and all but worshipped their white masters. Commercial filmmakers of the time learned that larger audiences and profit margins came from depicting the ease, wealth, and benign race relations of plantation life, and the ever present “Mammy” figure became an integral part of this image.
The second major development in film during this time was the introduction of “talkies,” or films with sound. The end of the silent film era led to a push for verisimilitude and authenticity in pictures, and with that came audiences who wanted to see and hear real black bodies and voices on screen. As a result, producers finally started seeking African American actors to play African American characters in their films. Gone were the days of minstrelsy and white actors mimicking “black” motions and facial expressions in blackface. However, even with acting roles opening up for blacks in Tinseltown, the variety of roles available for African American actors was still severely limited.
As Ralph Ellison once noted, “Movies are not about Blacks but what Whites think about Blacks.” In the 1930s and onward, African American actresses in mainstream Hollywood films had no choice but to portray stereotypes largely constructed by the white imagination. For example, to achieve the supposedly authentic “Negro dialect,” many movie houses hired white dialect coaches to teach African American actresses to speak in an exaggerated Southern drawl. Black actresses were also often typecast to specific roles based on their skin color and physical appearance. Darker skinned, heavyset women were most often chosen to play “Mammy” characters. Hattie McDaniel and Ethel Waters, two actresses best-known for their portrayal of maids in popular films, both had to force feed themselves at several points in their careers in order to maintain the overweight figure filmmakers desired for their characters. As Ed Guerrero writes, “In almost every instance, the representation of black people on the commercial screen has amounted to one grand, multifaceted illusion.” However, these actresses often found their own ways of existing as artists within such a restricting industry. Some embraced the available roles and tried to breathe some semblance of humanity into otherwise one-dimensional characters.
Hattie McDaniel, most famous for her portrayal of Mammy in Gone with the Wind (1939), became known for her portrayal of sassy, opinionated maids in motion pictures. “I loved Mammy,” McDaniel once said in an interview, “I think I understood her because my own grandmother worked on a plantation not unlike[Mammy’s.]” McDaniel’s screen presence was a force to be reckoned with, often putting white film critics on edge with her energetic, witty performance which some claimed threatened to upstage her white co-stars. Vera Stark is also said to be one of the actresses who breathed life into an otherwise flat stereotypical role. Unlike McDaniel, her most famous film was made in pre-code Hollywood, before strict rules governing on screen race relations were introduced. Often dubbed “cheesecake served in a brown paper bag: a leading lady in a maid’s uniform,” Stark’s nuanced and genuine performance as Tilly in The Belle of New Orleans (1933) disrupted the traditional image of black maids as simple-minded subservient characters, imbuing her with a depth which suggested she was “at once in the role and commenting on it.” However, these performances were not always valued as revolutionary or subversive by the wider black community.
Although McDaniel won an Academy Award for her performance in GWTW (the first black actor to ever do so) she faced heavy scrutiny from the NAACP and black audiences for what they saw as proliferating negative and demeaning images of the race. McDaniel infamously responded to these critics by saying, “I’d rather play a maid and make $700 a week than be a maid and make $7.” Louise Beavers, known for her portrayal of maid Delilah in Imitation of Life (1934), faced similar criticism from the NAACP, to which she responded, “I am only playing the parts, I don’t live them.” However, the distinction between the roles they played in pictures and their off-screen identities was unfortunately never that simple. No matter how many films African American actresses were able to work in, they were inevitably always most remembered for their work in servile supporting roles. Interviews with black actresses late in their careers frequently fixate around their early work in maid roles, even if they moved on to star in all-black films or portrayed other types of characters. As Vera Stark stated in her 1973 interview with Brad Donovan, “It’s been the subject of my life for the past forty years, yes I am trying to change the subject.”
This kind of treatment drove some African American actresses to push back against Hollywood’s representation of black women. Butterfly McQueen, who acted alongside McDaniel as a maid in GWTW, was very outspoken in her rejection of the negative portrayal of blacks in the film. “I was suffering the whole time,” she said, “I didn’t know that I’d have to be just a stupid little slave. I wouldn’t let Vivien Leigh slap me, and I wouldn’t eat watermelon. I was very sensitive about that.” Others resisted the restrictions of their roles in subtler ways. Vera Stark recounts having to “fight tooth and nail” to have the last line in The Belle of New Orleans, as the producers originally “didn’t want a Negrowoman to have the final word.” Many African American actresses eventually found such treatment intolerable, and sought political outlets for their frustrations. Fredi Washington, who played Louise Beavers’ daughter in Imitation of Life, quit acting early on and became a civil rights activist, co-founding the Negro Actors Guild of America where she worked to create better opportunities for black actors. Vera Stark also eventually shunned stereotypical roles and became involved in the civil rights movement, becoming an avid supporter of other Negro artists, fashion designers, and musicians. Other reactions were not as positive however, and many black actresses ended up turning to drugs or alcohol, or simply disappearing into uncredited extra roles. Such was the quandary often faced by black women in Hollywood: work demeaning roles (and often risk alienating their own community), or not work at all.
In Lynne Nottage’s play, we are reminded of an important set of histories that have long remained unspoken. Vera Stark’s character operates as a stand-in for all of the forgotten or uncredited African American actresses throughout Hollywood history, who never had the chance to be properly introduced to the American public. By the Way, Meet Vera Stark presents a story that refuses to be swept into a “dusty old trunk,” in hopes that today’s audiences might be inclined to look more critically at representations of African American women not only in early Hollywood, but on today’s big screens and films for years to come.
*previously published in The Goodman Theatre’s OnStage Magazine
**Vera Stark is a fictional character created by playwright Lynn Nottage as a commentary on the treatment of African American actors in early cinema.