A Few Minutes With . . .
Chuck Smith, who has been on the Goodman Theatre staff for 21 years, is the director of By The Way, Meet Vera Stark, a play by Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Lynn Nottage. The play runs at the Goodman Theatre from April 27 to June 2.
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By The Way, Meet Vera Stark is a highly anticipated production that reflects an important part of African-American history. Tell me a little bit about the storyline.
Smith: It’s loosely based on one of the old Hollywood actresses in the 1930s and ’40s named Theresa Harris, a woman few people know about because all she played was maids. But she was a very, very good actress. It’s about the plight of the African-American actor during the ’30s and the effect they [actors] had on the community. A lot of people say they were stereotypical, and ask why did they take those roles. It shows just how hard it was just to get those little roles as maids. The first part of the play goes into Hollywood in the ’30s and how tough it was for the Black actor. Then it jumps over to 2003 and we’re finding out what happened to this woman, Vera Stark, who played these maid roles. And we go into a lot of different scenarios about what really did happen to her. One of the neat features about the play itself is that it actually has a movie attached to it. There’s a film that we had to produce, showing this actress in action. It’s a very unique play. I’ve never seen a play that had a movie that had to be shown along with it. This is an original movie that we had to shoot here, using our actors. It had an added attraction for me because, although I’ve worked on television, I’ve never worked on any motion picture at all. So now I can say I’ve done that too.
You’re quite familiar with playwright Lynn Nottage’s work and you previously directed her play, Crumbs From The Table Of Joy, at the Goodman. Why were you excited to do this particular play, By The Way, Meet Vera Stark?
Smith: I’d be excited to direct anything by Lynn Nottage. She’s a wonderful writer. After I did Crumbs From The Table Of Joy in about 2006, I fell in love with her writing. This play is nothing like Crumbs From The Table Of Joy, neither is her Pulitzer Prize-winning play Ruined that started here at the Goodman about three years ago. Her subject matter is all over the map, but it’s all about the African-American community, and it's well done, well written. She’s a damn good writer. So anything she writes I would want a shot at trying to direct it.
As a director, what were your first thoughts when you read the script? Were you envisioning things that you could possibly do with it as you read it?
Smith: When I read a play, I have to be interested in the play and the story. And I was intrigued by this storyline right away. I didn’t know about Theresa Harris, so I immediately went to Hattie McDaniel, Dorothy Dandridge and Lena Horne and thought about the problems they had to face. But they were only the tip of the iceberg. There were a lot of Sisters and Brothers who were trying to make their way through Hollywood back in the ’30s. I was attracted to the story.
Aside from having to make an original movie to go along with the play, were there any other challenges that you had to face?
Smith: In the first act, there are quite a few scene changes, and scene changes are always a problem with any show. The major hurdle was how do you get from one scene to the next in an efficient manner. What we’ve done is put in a revolving set, so when one scene is over, the scenery just revolves around and you’re in the next scene. It’ll be faster than having stagehands come and take furniture off and setting up for another scene.
Give me some insight into the cast you’ve put together and are working with in Vera Stark.
Smith: This is a beautiful cast. Tamberla Perry [who was under Smith’s direction in Race] is Vera Stark. Also from our Race cast is Patrick Clear, who works all over the city and everybody knows him. There's also Ron Rains, Kara Zediker and Chiké Johnson, a Chicago actor who has drifted off to New York and Milwaukee, where he just finished A Raisin in the Sun there. TaRon Patton is from Congo Square Theatre, and Amelia Workman is from New York. The cast has a nice mix of good, strong Chicago actors and actresses, and a few actors from out of town.
What do you hope people walk away with after viewing this play?
Smith: Just the knowledge of knowing that the entertainment business is one hard nut to crack. There’s a lot of pain that goes along with this business. People should realize that our actors in the ’30s and ’40s went through what they had to go through. They were pioneers and we should look at them as such, rather than ridiculing them about the roles they played. We should look at them as heroes; they built the bridges for us.
You’ve been resident director at the Goodman for 21 years. What has that experience been like for you and how has it impacted you as a director?
Smith: Well, I’ve been here 21 years and haven’t left. I first worked at the Goodman in 1970 as an actor and I vowed that one day I’d be on staff here because that experience was so good. I came on staff in 1992, and I’ve never once even thought about going anywhere else. It’s my dream job.
What is your approach to directing? Are you consistently hands-on or do you give the actors some space?
Smith: Both. What I try to do is pick actors with experience who can help me shape characters, rather than wait for me to shape characters for them. I used to act, so I know the process. I try my best to stay out of the actors’ way, unless they are just moving in the wrong direction. If they are moving in the right direction, I’ll just steer them a little bit. But if they are totally lost and can’t figure things out, then I jump in. In terms of character development, I like to choose experienced, smart actors who can do those things for you.
How did your love for theater develop?
Smith: Quite by accident. The story I tell, and it’s true, I literally stumbled into a theater and never walked out. It was a play called McAdam and Eve. I don’t remember who it’s by, but I played the part of a wayward pastor for a group called Dramatic Art Guild in the late ’60 and ’70s, and it just grew from there. It was a community theater group and I realized that this was my calling. So I went back to school and studied under the GI Bill, graduated and got into the professional theater world. [McAdam and Eve; Or, Two in a Garden: A Musical Fantasy in Three Acts was written by Oliver Herford.]
Who are the playwrights that you admire?
Smith: Lynn Nottage is one for sure, and Lydia Diamond who is a fabulous Chicago writer Writer Charles Smith, not to be confused with me. Of course, August Wilson is the dean of Black playwrights, but my all-time ultimate hero is Lorraine Hansberry.
How would you describe the state of theater in Chicago, and what’s your vision for local theater in the future?
Smith: I wouldn’t leave Chicago for all the tea in China. Chicago, I think, is the best theater city in the world.
Even though so many actors aspire to go to New York?
Smith: That’s fine. I have to say that there is incentive to go to New York because, when it comes to salary, you reach a cap in Chicago. You can only go so far. If you’re after the fame and big bucks, then you have to get out of here. But I’m in this for the love of the work, so this is fine for me. But for someone who wants a little more money in your pocket, you have to go to New York. If you want film work, you have to go to Los Angeles. But what I do is straight theater, and I do it for the Goodman; I do it for MPAACT; I’ll do it for anybody and work all over the place in the city. If I like the play and the people involved with it, I’ll do it. That’s what I love. I was in on the very beginning of the Chicago theater movement, as we know it now. I watched its growth, been a part of its growth, and now I’m enjoying the fruits of my labor, so to speak.
When you go to a theater to be entertained, do you view it simply for pleasure or does the director in you come out and you start thinking about how you would handle certain situations?
Smith: When I’m in Chicago, I go to the theater for pleasure. When I go to New York, I’m looking at a piece and wondering if I’d like to do it in Chicago or some other place. When I go to theater in Chicago, and I go a lot, three nights a week when I'm not working, I’m there strictly for the entertainment. I love doing theater. I love watching theater. I love experiencing theater.
Chuck Smith, the Goodman Theatre’s resident director, has carved out an enviable path that has put him on a pedestal alongside the theater world’s most respected directors. Since joining the Goodman Theatre’s staff, his credits include the Chicago premieres of Race, The Good Negro, Proof and The Story; plus the world premieres of By the Music of the Spheres and The Gift Horse. Other productions on the Goodman stage include James Baldwin’s The Amen Corner, which went to Boston’s Huntington Theatre Company, where it won the Independent Reviewers of New England (IRNE) Award for Best Direction; Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun; Pearl Cleage’s Blues for an Alabama Sky; August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom; the Fats Waller musical Ain’t Misbehavin’; the 1993 to 1995 productions of A Christmas Carol; Crumbs From the Table of Joy; Vivisections from a Blown Mind; and The Meeting.
A former actor who served in the U.S. Marines, Smith, who has additional directing credits at numerous Chicago theaters––including ETA, Black Ensemble Theatre, MPAACT, Congo Square Theatre Company and Northlight Theatre––adds another entry to his long list of credits by directing the poignant production, By The Way, Meet Vera Stark, at the Goodman Theatre, beginning April 27 through June 2. The play, written by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage, highlights Hollywood’s cultural climate in the ’30s and ’40s and focuses on the life of a fictional, strong and innovative African-American actress who had to accept stereotypical roles, but––despite the times––she didn’t just endure, she prevailed. Seventy years later, observers are left to assess the life and legacy of this crafty star, whose skillful navigation of the pitfalls in early Hollywood causes many to wonder about the level of fame and fortune she might have enjoyed in another time.
In this interview, the award-winning Smith talks about bringing By The Way, Meet Vera Stark to the Goodman stage and a range of other subjects, including how his love for theater developed and why he steadfastly remains in Chicago when many other opportunities have presented themselves.
During rehearsal, Smith gives direction to Tamberla Perry, who has the lead role in By The Way, Meet Vera Stark. The play is loosely based on the career of Theresa Harris, shown below with Barbara Stanwyck in a scene from the 1933 movie Baby Face. Harris had several uncredited roles, beginning with the 1929 film Thunderbolt, and it was not until Baby Face that she was listed among a movie's cast.
By the Way, Meet Vera Stark runs April 27 through June 2 (opening night is Monday, May 6). Tickets ($25 - $81; subject to change) are available at GoodmanTheatre.org/Vera, by phone at 312.443.3800 or at the box office (170 North Dearborn).