Introduce Yourself(ie): 10 Questions with By the Way, Meet Vera Stark Title Star Jessica Frances Dukes
Obie winner Jessica Frances Duke gives a performance that has to be seen as the title character in Signature Theatre's critically-acclaimed revival of Lynn Nottage's comedy By the Way, Meet Vera Stark. Set during the Golden Age of Hollywood in Act I and the decades following in Act II, the play examines the legacy and hardships of African American women in film through the career of fictional Vera Stark as she goes from a maid to groundbreaking screen icon to obscurity and folklore.
BroadwayBox caught up with Jessica (who memorably appeared off-Broadway in Bootycandy and Yellowman) to talk about how the role changed her for the better, the screen icons she admires, and how she images Vera's life from 1933-1973.
1. What do you admire most about Act One Vera?
Oh wow! I admire Vera’s optimism, her hope, her joy. She wants so much and is open to the possibilities of the world in Act 1. It’s a joy to play someone as driven and as smart, if not smarter, than myself. In a weird way, playing her has made me a better person and actress.
2. Who are you serving us in Act Two? It’s so epic. Who were your inspirations when creating 1973 Vera?
THANK YOU SO MUCH! Yes, there are a lot of the legends up in there, Della Reese being a large part, Judy Garland in her later interviews, Eartha Kitt, my Grandmother Frances Yancey, and many actresses I look up to, like Linda Gravatt, and Lizan Mitchell, and more. Of course, she’s an exaggerated version of these people but yes. I also have an old soul, so I think I found her before I found Act 1 Vera. Lol.
3. What’s the most striking thing playwright Lynn Nottage said to you about Vera?
I don’t know if it was specifically about Vera. I think it was about the play in general. She said, “All of these people are passing; they are all in a way trying to deal and succeed in an industry that wasn’t built for them, and we are still fighting today.” Lynn said, “We cannot look at the beautiful wave of blackness in the industry right now as change, this is a moment, and we have to figure out how to sustain and build on this moment in order for it to be the change we are seeking.” But truly every time we talk, I walk away with gems from her. She’s so smart!
4. Who were the film actresses you grew up idolizing?
Oh so many! Angela Bassett, Alfre Woodard, Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Whoopi Goldberg, Regina King, but I can’t leave out the actors because a lot of my influence comes from the men too like Tom Hanks (who is probably my favorite person to watch of all time) Al Pacino, Don Cheadle, Morgan Freeman, Denzel Washington, Robin Williams. The research for Vera Stark has opened me up to so many more.
5. You’ve done so much research for this role. Can you share one actress you learned about during the process that more people should know?
I had been in love with Nina Mae Mckinney and knew about her and love her work but I was floored by my research on Theresa Harris! I had never heard of her and was ashamed after seeing her talent. I’m in love with all of her movies now. Please look her up!
6. Vera lies a bit to land her big role. What’s the biggest lie you’ve told to get a job?
Haaa!!! I don’t think I’ve told a lie to get an acting job. Maybe withheld information back in the day for a regular job. Like when I was younger and working in a restaurant, I told them I was an actor but it “wouldn’t interfere with my work at the restaurant” knowing it would and that as soon as I booked an acting job I was going to quit.
7. What’s something you are passionate about outside of performing?
The business side of this business. If I wasn’t an actor, I’d be a manager or an agent. I love the ins and outs of this business. When I’m not onstage, I am helping develop a play with a playwright, or seeing art (whether it be visual or performing), and, of course, studying, reading, and auditioning. I am pretty immersed in it every day. If there was one thing outside of the whole artist life, I would say it would be entertaining people in my home. Cooking for folks and playing cards. Talking smack over a whiskey or two.
8. Was there a role you played in high school or college that gave you the confidence to pursue acting?
Prix in Breath, Boom by Kia Corthron. I was a senior in college. It changed my life. The director, my mentor, I think cast me purposely for that reason. She knew it would break me and it did. It broke me open. And I’m thankful to her for it.
9. What’s your pop culture guilty pleasure TV show?
Oh wow!!! I don’t know! There are so many!
10. There’s some debate in the show Vera’s fate. What do you think happens to Vera between 1973 and 2003?
I’m not sure what happens to Vera. Unfortunately, “too many things” happen from 33-73. The world explodes. Historically, I mean, and being a black woman in that time means she has dealt with the harsh realities of the world but also of a Hollywood that wasn’t built for her. Heartbreak has hit her hard, and I don’t mean by men. She loves this industry; Vera’s been performing since she was 6 so she’s married to an industry that abuses her in my opinion. Disappointment. Racism. Neglect. Loss. I think she’s tried to have children and failed due to her lack of care for her body. I think that Hollywood and all its glory pulled her through the ringer, and even though she was successful by doing so many films, the roles in those films and the push back from her community and from her loved ones has caused a lot of loneliness—and because of that alcoholism and drugs took her into a spiral. I think that in Act 2, we are seeing her at a point where she is trying to pull herself together but she is sitting with all of that inside of her. No matter what, Vera forces her chin up, her chest out, her shoulders back and she walks like the queen that she is because no one can take that from her. Even her.
But I truly don’t think she lives too much longer after the interview. She’s not well in the interview, due to the life she had from 33-73 so I’m not sure. That’s the secret I play is that she’s not well actually. But you never know. It’s a mystery even to the actress playing her.
Get yourself over to the Pershing Square Signature Center before March 10 to see Jessica Frances Dukes as Vera Stark in By the Way, Meet Vera Stark.