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By The Way, Meet 30s/40s Actress Theresa Harris - Lynn Nottage's Inspiration For 'Vera Stark'

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by Tambay A. Obenson
May 31, 2013 5:54 PM
7 Comments
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I was just reading THIS New York Times article on Lynn Nottage's inspiration for her play By The Way, Meet Vera Stark, which has been touring the country since its debut in New York 2 years ago, featuring Sanaa Lathan. .

The play follows the titular headstrong African American maid and budding actress Vera Stark, over a seventy-year period, and her tangled relationship with her boss, a white Hollywood star desperately grasping to hold onto her career. Stark pursues her dream of making it in the movies, while also grappling with racial stereotypes through several decades in the 20th century.

In the New York Times piece, Nottage explains that her inspiration for Vera Stark was Theresa Harris - a real-life black actress of the 1930s and 40s, who was limited to mostly servant/maid roles, like a lot of black actresses working in Hollywood at the time. It took me a few minutes, but I eventually remembered Ms Harris in a 1933 film titled Baby Face (above), a movie which Lynn Nottage says in the NY Times piece was her introduction to Harris - a performance that really got her attention. As she states, "I was struck... by how different it was from so many of the other representations of African-American women that I had seen from that period."

And why was she struck? Well, as I was, Nottage was taken by Theresa Harris's role in Baby Face (which starred Barbara Stanwyck) - how her character was portrayed in that film. Specifically, as I wondered when I first saw the fim, was it the first film to introduce the BBF stock character? BBF of course means Best Black Friend – a usually black actress cast as the leading white actress’ best friend; and even though they’re supposed to be “equals,” the BBF is often a plot device, there to support her white friend, providing some special insight that helps the white lead overcome some personal obstacle.

Harris' role in Baby Face is definitely subservient in that BBF sense, but she wasn’t Stanwyck’s maid in the most typical sense. In fact, the few synopses of the film I read described Harris’ character (Chico) as Stanwyck’s character’s best friend (or just friend), or co-conspirator, or co-worker. She’s never really referred to as a maid. I’d even say that for most of the film, I don’t recall there being much reference to the fact that she’s black, other than the obvious. But I’d say for the most part, both characters are believed to be, dare I say, “equals” – at least as “equal” as the time period in which the film takes place will allow.

In short, the film centers on Lilly Powers, played by Stanwyck, who moves to New York from her small industrial town, intent on using men the way men have used her previously. She uses her sexuality to climb the social ladder, with Harris’ Chico as her asexual partner in crime, friend, confidant, and all those other BBF character traits. 

Yes, there are scenes in which Harris (or rather Chico) does play her maid, but my understanding of those sequences is that they were part of the ruse both of them had constructed together in order to assist Lilly’s ascension by pretension, with sex as a tool – essentially what a BBF does… assist. Chico only pretends to be Lilly’s maid when one of Lilly’s many upper class suitors pays her a visit.

It’s also worth noting that, for much of her onscreen time, Chico’s attire matches Lilly’s – from their humble beginnings, to the more ostentatious outfits that the new wealth achieved by Lilly allots them in the latter half of the movie, after Lilly indeed sleeps her way to the top.

And Nottage clearly agrees with my assessment, as the NY Times piece adds, "this wasn’t one of those nearly invisible black actresses who filled Hollywood movies in the years before the civil rights era, the woman at the edge of the screen announcing visitors and taking hats. Harris’s character is a maid, but she’s also Stanwyck’s companion, and something of a friend. Entranced by both the character and actress, Ms. Nottage started wondering about Harris - who she was and how she got to Hollywood and the types of films she had been able to make in that notoriously inhospitable town.. Curious to know more, she set off on an intellectual investigation that became an aesthetic revelation, as she searched for Harris’s traces in the Hollywood histories of African-Americans, in biographies, online, on YouTube and DVD. She didn’t find much, save for movies like “The Flame of New Orleans,” a period confection directed by René Clair in which Harris somewhat reprises her role in “Baby Face,” but with more lines and real glamour shots. With little to go on but the movies, Ms. Nottage began filling in the blanks with her imagination."

And the result in the end is Nottage's very own Watermelon Woman moment - aka, the play By The Way, Meet Vera Stark, which, as I noted, is currently touring the country and is recommended if it's in your city. I believe it's currently playing at the Goodman Theatre in LaGrange, IL.

Baby Face is on DVD and VOD by the way, so you can watch and see for yourselves.

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7 Comments

  • Wardell Clark | June 3, 2013 11:52 AMReply

    Its currently playing at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, IL.

  • tolly devlin | June 1, 2013 4:39 PMReply

    Fans of film noir can also find Hrris in a brief scene in Out of The Past, where Mitchum's Jeff Bailey questions her about the whereabouts of Jane Greer's cathy Moffatt. She does play a maid in the movie but the scene takes place in a Black nightclub.

  • MFD | June 1, 2013 1:13 PMReply

    Theresa Harris is also prominent and effective in two excellent movies produced by Val Lewton and directed by Jacques Tourneur -- "Cat People" and "I Walked With A Zombie." Despite its title (which its first line of dialogue mocks lightly), the latter is one of the eeriest and most poetic horror films ever made.

  • Derrick | June 1, 2013 1:29 AMReply

    Good article. Thanks for shedding light on this forgotten actress and the significant role she played in Hollywood. I definitely plan to see "Baby Face."

    A couple of corrections though: As Edye notes, The Goodman Theater is in Chicago, not LaGrange. And, I don't believe "By the Way, Meet Vera Stark" is a touring production. The Goodman production was mounted by the theater as part of its subscription series. Separate productions have also been mounted around the country, including in Los Angeles last fall (Geffen Playhouse), and Boston this past spring (at Lyric Stage).

  • Edye | June 1, 2013 12:24 AMReply

    I saw Vera Stark at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago IL. Very funny and ironic. Made me want to research black actresses and those who passed for white. Carol Channing is one.

  • HarveyDent322 | May 31, 2013 7:18 PMReply

    Thanks for shining the spotlight on Miss Harris. I noticed the uniqueness of her role in BABYFACE when I saw it too and she definitely was a partner-in-crime with Barbara Stanwyck in that one. Harris and Stanwyck had a winking agreement where they would subvert the sexist and racist conventions of the day to work for them. The movie in no way had them as equals because that would have been a bridge too far back then for a Hollywood movie but it definitely wasn't employer-employee between them.

    Many pre-Hayes Code Hollywood movies were much more relaxed racially compared to the movies that came after it was instituted. Again, the roles in the movies were far from equal (still not today in many cases) but the white and black characters interacted in a much more freer way than compared to later movies like GONE WITH THE WIND, JEZEBEL, and MEET JOHN DOE.

  • Micah | May 31, 2013 6:32 PMReply

    I have to look up this film. It's definitely an anomaly as far as black roles are concerned. It's also a source of inspiration for battling great challenges. It also makes me more interested in seeing Vera Stark.

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