Listen to this article

Great dramatists are often ahead of the curve when it comes to issues facing society and culture.

More than a decade ago, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage became fascinated with the artistry of Theresa Harris, an African American woman who carved a career in film at a time when Black people were often relegated to roles as servants or other insulting stereotypes.

Encountering Harris’ work caused Nottage to research the actor’s work more fully, to consider the challenges and frustrations experienced by her — and by others who were limited by the color of their skin.

In 2011, Nottage’s play “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark” opened Off Broadway in New York, sparking a theatrical conversation about the ways of Hollywood’s past, how things might have changed through time and how we might think about them today.

Despite its commentary on racialized casting, “Meet Vera Stark” skates a razor’s edge of 1930s-style screwball comedy before the playwright unpacks how those events might appear in hindsight.

Now playing at the Station Theatre in Urbana (through June 26), Nottage’s play is drawn into sharper focus than when it first appeared in 2011.

To some extent, the current production’s success is due to the tightly woven ensemble of nine actors (and charmingly acrobatic scenic changes).

But the themes playing out on the tiny stage are more immediate today as audiences catch up to Nottage’s dramaturgy.

While the comic first act focuses on the vagaries of the Hollywood system and the ways it intersected with issues of race in the 1930s, the second act shifts between commentaries by “academic theorists” with agendas to push, scenes from a 1970s talk show and clips from the film that was the topic of the first act.

Sound a little messy? Sometimes in art, there is chaos. And sometimes, serious topics can be funny.

Directors Kahlilah Lane and June Clark Eubanks might want to fine-tune the crosstalk when the academics begin to harangue one another: There are important truths in what each of them says, even when their words conflict.

Lane and Eubanks give their actors plenty of opportunities to shine, and Keke Antoinette (who plays Vera) will no doubt be at the top of every director’s list for leading roles.

Michaela Kruse is consistently amusing as the white glamor queen with a secret, Solomon Robinson as Vera’s love interest continues to expand his range, Kayla Smith-Richard impresses with a sure grasp of two distinct characters, and Mariah Smith is sad, if attractive comic relief as a girl trying to “pass.”

Spencer Hazen, Aaron Clark, Seth Hubbard and Tiphaine Kouadou all acquit themselves admirably in a range of roles.

Co-director Eubanks also created the intricately flexible scenic design, which meshes well with lighting by Jesse Folks.

Mike Prosise keeps the sound crisp and unobtrusive, and costume designers Susan Curtis, Danielle Benthian and Grey Pendragon set the right tone for the time periods.

It is impossible not to be aware that a racial reckoning is underway in the United States.

It has caused many to rethink how art is made and what might be the potential impact.

Playwright Nottage has been thinking about it for a while, and she has some thoughts to share with you.

If you “Meet Vera Stark,” you’re likely to have some thoughts of your own and some laughs. What a combination.

Jeffrey Eric Jenkins is a professor at the University of Illinois and president of the International Association of Theatre Critics. Email him at jej@illinois.edu or reach out to him on Twitter @Crrritic.

Trending Videos