Little-known black actress named Theresa Harris
I had never heard of the actress Theresa Harris, who appeared in more than 80 movies from 1929 to 1958. I was introduced to a woman like her this weekend in a Broadway show called “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark.”
I had driven to New York with friends to see Lynn Nottage’s new play, which is at 2econdStage Theatre until May 22. I had seen her production of “Ruined” two years ago in New York and had loved it. This new one was about a fictitious woman like Harris who had a dream in the 1930s of being a Hollywood star. Hollywood, however, saw her only as a maid and those were the only roles she was offered.
The actress Sanaa Lathan plays the character Vera Stark quite adroitly, backed up by two actresses who play Vera’s friends – one of whom (the character Lottie portrayed by Kimberly Hebert Gregory) was hilariously funny. Lathan herself eerily resembled the photos I saw of Harris.
The play tells the story of Vera working as a maid and confidante to an over-the-top fading white Hollywood actress vying for what will likely be her last great role. Vera wants a part in the movie, too – the only type of role for women like her. There was a lot of fun and laughter in the lines of the script that showed the unequal roles of blacks and whites both on and off the screen.
I found the first half of the play, which took place in 1933, deceptively simple but engaging. The dialogue was natural and the acting believable. The second half – shown as a 1973 film-clip interview with Vera and a 2003 panel discussion of her life – was a bit slow and retiring. It lacked a defined story line, and the acting seemed melodramatic and forced.
The most intriguing thing for me, though, was the woman on whom the play was based. In a New York Times interview, Nottage said that she became enamored with Harris after seeing her in the 1933 movie “Baby Face” with Barbara Stanwyck. Harris played Stanwyck’s companion, and the two characters were written as friends.
Harris’ character Chico was different from how African American women were being portrayed at that time, Nottage said in the interview. So she set out to find out more about the actress and the other movies that she had made. And hence, Nottage was moved to create her own version of Harris.
The real Harris appeared in films as the maid for some of Hollywood’s biggest stars. She, however, wanted to do more – just as Vera in the play.
Harris was Ginger Roger’s maid in “Professional Sweetheart (1933),” Billie Burke’s maid in “Finishing School (1934),” Bette Davis’ maid in “Jezebel (1938)” and Maureen O’Hara’s maid in “Miracle on 34th Street (1947).” Many of the roles were uncredited, although her character was given a name in some of the movies.
She also played Eddie “Rochester” Anderson’s love interest in the 1940 movie “Buck Benny Rides Again” with Jack Benny. By the time she made her last movie “The Gift of Love” in 1958, she was the wife of the gardener played by Scatman Crothers. A year earlier, she was still playing the same uncredited role as in her earlier films.
In researching, I came across others like Harris, who were in many films but were on the fringes. The book “Actresses of a Certain Character (2006)” listed a handful of them, including Libby Taylor, Lillian Yarbo and Marietta Canty.
Interestingly, another black actress – who was also unknown to me – named Etta Moten also appeared in films during the 1930s. A contralto singer, her voice was dubbed for Rogers for a song in “Professional Sweetheart,” and she may have been dubbed for Harris in the same movie. Both Harris (simply identified as the woman in a couple) and Moten (soloist in an uncredited role) were in “Gold Diggers of 1933.”Harris was pursuing acting at a time when roles for African American women were limited.
Some like her took those menial roles and gave them dignity, others refused them, while others played into the simpleton characterizations ascribed to us. We know the name Lena Horne (who sang her way into the movies, refusing to serve as a maid), Nina Mae McKinney (among the first to get a major studio contract in 1929, but MGM didn’t know what to do with her) and later Dorothy Dandridge (whose roles were much more eclectic, even though some of the parts were small. Who could forget her in “Carmen Jones” from 1954).
Nottage’s play shows how difficult it was for black actresses to get substantive roles, even though they had the ability to play much much more. But I’m delighted she decided to shine a spotlight on Theresa Harris – and in doing so, others like her.
Glad to meet all of you.