It’s been a season of Black maids from “reel to real”. There are entertainment showcases with a glimpse at Black maids in 20th century America. Like the film The Help, set in 1963 Jim Crow Mississippi and the Off-Broadway comedy By The Way, Meet Vera Stark, a fictional exploration of a 1930’s Hollywood maid who becomes a scene-stealing movie actress playing maids. Then there’s the recent real-life 21st century victimization of two Black maids from African nations who bravely filed charges of being sexually attacked by wealthy businessmen while working in New York City’s elite hotels.
It’s interesting that Black women doing “days work” is getting a close-up view in pop culture and global news. I am the daughter of a housekeeper. In fact, although my mother had many jobs throughout her life—from being one of the first Black telephone operators at Western Electric to co-founding the first daycare center in our New Jersey town, during the 1970’s and 1980’s she worked as a housekeeper doing “days work” to help pay the family bills. Some of her friends still dabbled in “days work” even in their seventies, making extra money washing floors and dusting furniture.
In the Off-Broadway comedy By The Way, Meet Vera Stark, Brooklyn’s Pulitzer prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage turns the spotlight on Black actresses from the 1930’s, 1940’s and 1950’s who were segregated to the roles of the maid. Now playing at the Second Stage Theater until June 12, By The Way, Meet Vera Stark, stars glamorous Sanaa Lathan (Love & Basketball, Alien vs Predator and Something New) in a story inspired by the glamorous Black actress Theresa Harris.
Nottage, a MacArthur “genius” fellow, is renowned for her work on Black women from her critically acclaimed turn-of-the-century Off Broadway drama Intimate Apparel, which starred Viola Davis to her Pulitzer prizewinning Broadway drama Ruined, about women in war-torn Congo. Mesmerized by Harris’ performance as Barbara Stanwyck’s maid and friend in the 1933 film Baby Face, Nottage amassed a collection and study of this forgotten supporting star whose spotlighted roles were mostly maids. Harris’ films ranged from Professional Sweetheart where her character Vera teaches Ginger Rogers how to be sexy to classics like Jezebel, The Women, Cat People and Miracle on 34th Street. “As an actress, she was progressive,” Nottage told the New York Times. “She was asserting her presence in the films. I wouldn’t argue that it’s entirely directors. I would argue that there’s something this woman did that was unique — that demanded directors pay attention.” By the mid-1950s, Harris married a doctor and retired from the movies.
By The Way, Meet Vera Stark is the creative collaboration of two very smart Black women. Both are Ivy Leaguers. Nottage holds a bachelor’s from Brown University and a master’s in drama from Yale. Lathan earned a bachelor’s from Berkeley and a master’s in drama from Yale. Together, they take the audience on a 70-year journey through the life of the fictional Vera Stark, an out-of-work Black actress who takes a job as a maid for a Hollywood star. Then uses her theatrical talents to quit her day job as a maid to perform as a maid on the big screen.
This is Lathan’s first star turn on the New York stage. She earned a Tony nomination for the Broadway run of A Raisin in the Sun with Sean Combs and Phylicia Rashad, then co-starred in the London stage production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof with James Earl Jones and Phylicia Rashad.
“There are so many amazing Black actresses out there who are so talented, and they’re just kind of, I can’t say forgotten, but they’re kind of in the shadows,” Lathan told Broadway.com. “The roles out there for women of color are few and far between, and it’s really wonderful to not only be playing a Black actress but, in a weird way, to bring a Black actress’ journey to life.”
Over the years, I’ve interviewed veteran Black actresses dating back to Theresa Harris’ era, who had roles as Hollywood and Broadway maids. The late great actress and theatre producer Rosetta LeNoire worked with her godfather Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and even Orson Welles, but gained TV fame as the grandmother in Family Matters. LeNoire would remark that during her early career, “I always knew my costume would be a maid’s uniform.” Butterfly McQueen appeared on WLIB talk several times and would tell us about her college degrees and memories of Gone With The Wind. Actress and Negro Ensemble Company co-founder Clarice Taylor, who recently passed away at 93, was renowned as Dr. Huxtable’s mother in The Cosby Show, but thriller fans knew her as Clint Eastwood’s ill-fated maid in the 1970’s hit Play Misty for Me. Broadway star and TV pioneer Gertrude Jeannette, founder of Harlem’s HADLEY Players, befriended playwright Tennessee Williams who expanded her role as a maid in the Broadway drama Vieux Carre.These women gave a voice and dignity to the Black women that did “days work.”
“Even though she’s a fictional character, she is representing all of the Black actresses through the ages and their struggle,” Lathan explained to Broadway.com about Vera Stark. “The struggle is different today, obviously, than it was for someone like Vera Stark in the 1930’s, but there is still a long way to go in terms of opportunity.”