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Director relishes Hollywood history lesson in Rep play

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The play at hand is what Tome Cousin calls "a full package" for a director with his interests. There's music and movement for the choreographer in him, and it's a history lesson on film, which these days is right in his wheelhouse.

"By the Way, Meet Vera Stark" is based on the life of African-American actress Theresa Harris, who in 90 films appeared with the most glamorous stars of Hollywood's golden era. Credited and uncredited, she played maid to onscreen Southern belles, socialites and the like, and also could be counted on as a singer and dancer.

'By the Way, Meet Vera Stark'

Where: The Rep at Pittsburgh Playhouse, Studio Theatre, 222 Craft Ave., Oakland.

When: Today through April 6. 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays.

Tickets: $24-$27; 412-392-8000 or

Yet, like the fictional Vera, how many moviegoers know her name?

The plight of the minority actor is documented for us on film, but we know little of what happens offscreen, and that's a gap that "Vera Stark" attempts to fill. Fiction wasn't enough, though, for history buff Mr. Cousin, who in 2005 was in New York studying new media art and performance at Long Island University, a program exploring how new media and film tied together, when he became acquainted with the works of Oscar Micheaux, thought to be the first major African-American feature filmmaker,

"I found Theresa Harris was one of his muses," Mr. Cousin said. "He made, like, hundreds of films, and nobody knows him."

The play is by Lynn Nottage, who won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Drama with "Ruined," involving the plight of women in the civil war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo. Her biting comedy "By the Way, Meet Vera Stark" stays closer to home -- Hollywood -- to take on racial and societal issues of the 1930s.

"Every time the Oscars roll around, this conversation comes up about ethnic or minority actors winning," said Mr. Cousin, in a conversation shortly after Lupita Nyong'o was named best supporting actress for her role in "12 Years a Slave."

He wondered what's next for Ms. Nyong'o. "She's so beautiful, she's got such a distinctive look, regardless of the acting abilities. I'm curious to see how she how will function and how they will use her."

He noted that the first black Oscar winner, singer-songwriter-actress Hattie McDaniel -- Mammy in "Gone With the Wind" -- was destined to be cast as that stereotypical maid the rest of her career. Perpetuating stereotypes was something that actors and actresses of the 1930s, when "Vera Stark" takes place, all had to wrestle with.

It hasn't all gone away, with many columnists noting that McDaniel and Ms. Nyong'o -- decades apart -- won their Academy Awards portraying slaves.

A few performers were able to take typecasting and to build a career. Theresa Harris used brains, beauty and talent to become more intricate to some films, but like Vera Stark, she still was not a leading character, Mr. Cousin pointed out.

"I use the example in the rehearsal room of Eartha Kitt, who used how she was stereotyped to her advantage," he said. "She took the little sex kitten thing and morphed it into this super persona. She was savvy with it, and that's an example of how someone can use it."

When Mr. Cousin accepted the role as director from The Rep, the professional company of Point Park University, he immediately thought of Maria Becoates-Bey for the role of Vera. He had worked with her years ago.

"I saw she hadn't been working for a while and I thought that was puzzling because I know she was a [Post-Gazette performer of the year in 1994-95] and I thought, 'What happened there?' ... She was still known in the theater community, but a lot of people don't know who she is. I didn't want to make it like it was in the play, but that's what it is. Where are the vehicles being chosen for her? That's a parallel to the play, and that's what's going to make it a little bit more personal for her."

He's also pleased to be reuniting with veteran Pittsburgh actor Jeff Howell, who he said is of an age when he can understand the idea of what a Hollywood mogul might be like. It wasn't that long ago that Mr. Howell played Cecil B. DeMille in Pittsburgh CLO's "Sunset Boulevard."

In "Vera Stark," the circa-1930s Hollywood executives appear as versions of how we might picture them and how they pictured themselves, Mr. Cousin said.

"The Hollywood people in the play are immigrants who have taken on the American perception of what a Hollywood mogul should be, even if that's not who they are. And the actresses are the same; they are trying to be someone else.

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