Maid In Chicago: Lottery Lady Lands “Vera Stark” Role At The Goodman
By DeShong Perry-Smitherman
Chicago’s own Tamberla Perry stars in the title role in the new Goodman stage play By The Way, Meet Vera Stark. But before her talents could help sell out major stages, before her teeth were “NeNe Leakes perfect”, even before becoming one of Chicago’s favorite Lottery girls, Tamberla Perry was a booty-poppin’ hot mama in a low budget rap video…and our parents didn’t even know it!
My sister, the slim, smiley, leggy diva known for telling Illinois gamblers their “lucky” numbers, wasn’t born with that confidence and charisma seen on WGN three times a week. In fact, had she followed her first mind, she’d be seeing patients as the physical therapist she originally planned to be instead of being seen on stage and screen.
However, life had other plans. And starting this Friday, April 26, this homegrown Chicago South Sider will take the stage in the highly coveted title role in the Goodman’s By The Way, Meet Vera Stark.
So how did she go from shaking a tail feather to shaking up audiences? It was corporate America that helped land Tamberla where she is today. Not because a boss believed in her enough to say: “Follow your dreams.” No, that’s the stuff of movies that don’t star Black women.
Instead, on a fall day in 2006, Tamberla, who at the time was a diversity recruiter for a major retailer, was called into her supervisor’s office and told to pack her stuff.
“I felt like I was about to throw up, right there in that office…as a matter of fact, I should have!” she remembers, laughing. “Losing that job meant losing a piece of myself, that good corporate money, and most importantly, access to a company jet!”
But, being escorted out of corporate America also gave Tamberla, a University of Rochester graduate, freedom. Because she had always been tightfisted with money, she had enough of it to sit, think, dream and act on what to do next. However, she was very rough around the edges at first.
“I would go into an audition with a cover letter instead of an acting resume, then when they’d ask me to do a monologue, I’d break out with, ‘You told Harpo to beat me!’” she recalls, shaking her head. “That was the only monologue I knew. No wonder I couldn’t get a gig!”
In her first year of trying her hand at acting, she became a company member of MPAACT Theatre, made about $18,000 from acting, and surprisingly, did enough work to impress an agent.
With that agent’s guidance and MPAACT’s continued support and training, Tamberla began her metamorphosis. She invested in high-end headshots and better weave jobs and got industrial and print work in return.
When she truly worked on her monologues, major theatre houses like the Goodman, Steppenwolf, and Lookingglass started calling her name. Soon after getting a gap closed between her two front teeth, she was cast in a Crest commercial, Boss, Kelsey Grammar’s cable show about a Chicago mayor, Chicago Fire, and last year’s production of Race at the Goodman.
Tamberla lamented, “Had I known that damn gap was keeping me from getting jobs, I would’ve taken some pliers to it a long time ago…but you live and you learn and you sacrifice…and yes, sometimes you even have to change your appearance to get the job!”
In Vera Stark, Pulitzer Prize winning Black playwright Lynn Nottage (Ruined) pulls the curtain back on old Hollywood in her latest play, a sly satire hailed as “not-to-be-missed” by Vogue Magazine. In this sharp screwball comedy, directed by Goodman legend Chuck Smith, Nottage takes a funny and irreverent look at racial stereotypes in Hollywood.
By The Way, Meet Vera Stark is a 70-year journey through the life of Vera Stark, a headstrong African-American maid and budding actress, and her tangled relationship with her boss, a White Hollywood star desperately grasping to hold on to her career. Vera begins a career in the 1930s, at a time when her only shot at success lay in stealing small scenes in big Hollywood blockbusters.
When circumstances collide and both women land roles in the same Southern epic, the story behind the cameras leaves Vera with a surprising legacy scholars will debate for years to come, about this controversial star whose eventual fame and fortune came at the price of perpetuating dangerous stereotypes. Hilarious and poignant, By the Way, Meet Vera Stark paints a vivid picture of the cultural climate that shaped this mysterious screen queen – and wonders who, in another time, she might have been.
Tamberla compares the headstrong 1930s maid who longs to become an actress to many actresses, even those of today.
“Vera and I are a lot alike,” Tamberla says thoughtfully. “She was all about the ‘hustle’ in 1933. And in 2013 – 80 years later – the hustle continues for Black actresses. Think about Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer in The Help. They were both talented and beautiful, but they had to be maids before anybody took notice.”
Thinking back on how my sister started her career – moonlighting in a low-end – she surely hustled to make this moment happen. On opening night, I will be there to watch and marvel at my middle sister’s talent. I know I will laugh and cry and hold my breath – secretly hoping that she doesn’t screw this up.
By the Way, Meet Vera Stark runs April 27 – June 2, 2013 in Goodman Theatre’s Albert Theatre. Opening Night is Monday, May 6. Tickets ($25-$81) can be purchased at GoodmanTheatre.org/Vera; by phone at 312/443-3800; or at the box office (170 North Dearborn).
(Editor’s Note: DeShong Perry-Smitherman is a freelance writer and the publicist for Tamberla Perry. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. David Smallwood contributed to this article.)