Tamberla Perry got her start at Second City and has pulled numbers for Illinois Lottery.
Just a year ago, Tamberla Perry was performing in David Mamet’s Race at the Goodman Theatre when the play by another Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright stopped her in her tracks. “Some girlfriends and I were talking about it, and one of the girls said, ‘I really want to see this show,’” recalls Perry. “I said, ‘Want to see this show? I’m trying to be this show.’”
Now Perry, a South Side native best known for pulling numbers for the Illinois Lottery, has hit the jackpot with the title role in the Goodman’s production of that very play by Lynn Nottage: By the Way, Meet Vera Stark. “She starts off as a servant to America’s sweetheart, Gloria Mitchell, but behind the scenes she wants to be a star,” says Perry of her character, an African-American maid in 1930s Hollywood. The world Nottage has created is so real—complete with the thought-provoking website meetverastark.com, which features insight into Vera from the likes of film scholar Mia Mask and director Peter Bogdanovich—that it’s easy to believe the fictional character of Vera Stark was actually a once-successful actress who, like Louise Beavers, Theresa Harris, and Hattie McDaniel before her, has been defined by a limited trajectory. “I have to be in the moment,” says Perry, who must explore the different, poignant layers of Vera’s breakout career and its mysterious end decades later. “In the 1930s, Vera’s not thinking about where she would be in, say, the 1980s.”
Perry’s interest was initially piqued by the show’s comic nature, fitting for someone whose first foray into Chicago’s performing arts scene was at The Second City. While performing with the sketch comedy group Soul Fools at Donny’s Skybox Theatre, Perry met her husband, actor Kevin Douglas, who encouraged her to audition for a show at Maat Production Association of Afrikan Centered Theatre (MPAACT); opportunities for roles at mainstays like Lookingglass Theatre Company, Steppenwolf Theatre Company, Victory Gardens Theater, and the Goodman Theatre have followed.
And while Perry’s talent has brought her good fortune, she’s not about to take a gamble on anything that could compromise her performance. During a trip to LA last fall, Perry had the opportunity to go to the Geffen Playhouse and see By the Way, Meet Vera Stark starring the original Vera Stark, film beauty Sanaa Lathan, but she politely declined. Says the up-and-coming actress, “I just didn’t want to be influenced.... You want every choice to be your choice.” By the Way, Meet Vera Stark runs from April 27 to June 2 at Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St., 312-443-3800