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Tamberla Perry on the state of roles for African-American actresses

TamberlPerry as VerStark KarZediker as GloriMitchell “By Way Meet VerStark”

Tamberla Perry as Vera Stark and Kara Zediker as Gloria Mitchell in “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark”

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Updated: May 20, 2013 1:31PM

It started in one of my first professional auditions in 2006: I read for the lead role, and the director cast me as the maid instead. African-American women have a long history of playing maids — a confining, stereotypical role — and the actresses who play them are often unrecognizable to the general public. At the time of that audition, I was just excited to work and didn’t see anything troubling about what happened until many years later. Now, I’m proud to star in “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark” at the Goodman; in it, playwright and Pulitzer Prize-winner Lynn Nottage comments on this part of history for African-American actresses and questions how things both have and haven’t changed.

Though Vera Stark (the character I play at the Goodman) is fictional, she could have easily been any actress in 1930s Hollywood — all of whom were more restricted than I am by the times they lived in. The audience sees that Vera’s only shot at a successful career is to take small roles, such as a maid, in big Hollywood blockbusters. And they see what compromises she has to make to even get a part, and from there, what else she has to do to stand out.

I still get calls looking for me to fill the role of the “sassy” black character. But sometimes, if the money is right, I may have to shut my mouth, take a role and deal with it later on. I may have less of that to deal with than the many women who came before me, but that’s not to say it doesn’t happen. It most certainly still does happen.

One of the reasons I’m excited to be performing Nottage’s work is because she writes about and for people of color. Part of the issue with getting parts today is that there’s simply so many African-American actresses trying to get so few parts. If you look at network television, there’s better diversity than years past, but the reality is, there aren’t many roles explicitly written for a person of color.

That’s why I sided with Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis for playing maids in “The Help,” though many people criticized them for taking demeaning roles. My grandmother cleaned houses, my aunt cleaned houses. They were telling the stories of our families — stories in our history that needed to be told — and they told them beautifully.

I’m hopeful about the future of African-American actresses. We’ve lifted a lot of restrictions and it can only improve from here. My husband and I create our own work with the MAAT Production Association of Afrikan Centered Theatre (MPAACT), inspired by African diaspora and using diverse casting, and the experience has been incredible. I’ve also recently had roles on “Chicago Fire” and “Boss.” So I won’t let a few setbacks get me down. I’ve seen other people come before me and give up, but I plan on facing the challenge head-on.

“By the Way, Meet Vera Stark” runs through June 2 at Goodman Theatre (170 N. Dearborn). For tickets, visit, call (312) 443-3800 or visit the box office.

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