Click to Skip Ad
Closing in...
Carl Franklin Is Casting an Actor for His Tupac Bio (No Marcc Rose from 'Straight Outta Compton'?) Carl Franklin Is Casting an Actor for His Tupac Bio (No Marcc Rose from 'Straight Outta Compton'?) 'Dope' Is Heading Back to Theaters for a Second Run (Awards Season Contention, Perhaps?) 'Dope' Is Heading Back to Theaters for a Second Run (Awards Season Contention, Perhaps?) Trailer for Season 2 of 'Z Nation' (Kellita Smith Is Fierce on the Show!) Trailer for Season 2 of 'Z Nation' (Kellita Smith Is Fierce on the Show!) Will Smith Puts on His "Nigerian Accent" in First Trailer for NFL Drama 'Concussion' Will Smith Puts on His "Nigerian Accent" in First Trailer for NFL Drama 'Concussion' This "Faith-Based" Drama Is Giving 'Straight Outta Compton' a Run for Its Money This Weekend... This "Faith-Based" Drama Is Giving 'Straight Outta Compton' a Run for Its Money This Weekend... Lee Daniels' Richard Pryor Biopic Is Officially Ready to Go (Mike Epps, Eddie Murphy, Oprah Winfrey, Kate Hudson) Lee Daniels' Richard Pryor Biopic Is Officially Ready to Go (Mike Epps, Eddie Murphy, Oprah Winfrey, Kate Hudson) Watch 5 Clips from Regina King's Feature Directorial Debut 'Let The Church Say Amen' Starring Naturi Naughton Watch 5 Clips from Regina King's Feature Directorial Debut 'Let The Church Say Amen' Starring Naturi Naughton Righting a Past Wrong? Academy to Present Spike Lee with Honorary Oscar Righting a Past Wrong? Academy to Present Spike Lee with Honorary Oscar African-American Female Team Produce Indie Horror Film ‘The Dark Rite’ African-American Female Team Produce Indie Horror Film ‘The Dark Rite’ Viola Davis Says She Will Star in a Film Adaptation of 'Fences' Directed by Denzel Washington Viola Davis Says She Will Star in a Film Adaptation of 'Fences' Directed by Denzel Washington "This Is a Relationship" - Watch Michael Ealy Frighten Sanaa Lathan in Tense First Clip From 'The Perfect Guy' "This Is a Relationship" - Watch Michael Ealy Frighten Sanaa Lathan in Tense First Clip From 'The Perfect Guy' Vin Diesel Says He's Returning for a 'xXx' Threequel - Filming to Start in December Vin Diesel Says He's Returning for a 'xXx' Threequel - Filming to Start in December Updates on Steve McQueen's "Epic" Series Centered on a Black Community in London, Over 3 Decades Updates on Steve McQueen's "Epic" Series Centered on a Black Community in London, Over 3 Decades This Is What Angela Bassett and Naomi Campbell Will Look Like in 'American Horror Story: Hotel' This Is What Angela Bassett and Naomi Campbell Will Look Like in 'American Horror Story: Hotel' Quentin Tarantino Says 'The Hateful Eight' Will Be Timely & Will Tackle White Supremacy Quentin Tarantino Says 'The Hateful Eight' Will Be Timely & Will Tackle White Supremacy Watch: First Look at Season Three of 'Hit the Floor' Watch: First Look at Season Three of 'Hit the Floor' Why Was Janet Hubert (Aunt Viv) Really Replaced on 'Fresh Prince of Bel-Air'? Buzzfeed Investigates Why Was Janet Hubert (Aunt Viv) Really Replaced on 'Fresh Prince of Bel-Air'? Buzzfeed Investigates Aaron McGruder Finally Explains Why He Left 'The Boondocks' Aaron McGruder Finally Explains Why He Left 'The Boondocks' Netflix Explains Why It Doesn't Always Have That Film Or TV Show You Really Want To See (Video) Netflix Explains Why It Doesn't Always Have That Film Or TV Show You Really Want To See (Video) Tichina Arnold Says She Talked To Martin Lawrence About Doing A 'Martin' Movie... Tichina Arnold Says She Talked To Martin Lawrence About Doing A 'Martin' Movie...

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

Photo of Tambay A. Obenson By Tambay A. Obenson | Shadow and Act May 31, 2013 at 5:54PM

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. .
7
Babyface

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.


Shadow & ActNewsletter