Nalley is a show all by herself.
'Spunk' brings melody, rhythm to S.F. stage
By Pat Craig
Article Launched:05/18/2007 06:56:33 AM PDT

As an author, Zora Neale Hurston had an ear for authentic language. As a folklorist, she had an eye for detail and a sort of cultural X-ray vision that resisted cursory glances.
The Harlem Renaissance author wrote extensively, but it turns out, the best use for her unblinking examinations of black life in the '20s and '30s is for theater. George C. Wolfe realized this when he turned three of her short pieces -- "Sweat," "Story In Harlem Slang" and "The Gilded Six-bits" -- into a full-length play called "Spunk."
The show, also filled with delightful original music that quickly captures the time period of the stories, is playing at San Francisco's Lorraine Hansberry Theatre through June 3.
It is, above all else, a high-energy two hours of theater that tosses your emotions around with tales that run the rapids between joy and sadness.
Hurston's stories are small slices of daily life in the black community, 70 or 80 years ago. Her characters are ordinary people, caught at critical moments in what could be some of the most revealing reportage to come out of the era.
At the same time, there is nothing stuffy about the stories. While she may have been a folklorist and academic, here, anyway, Hurston never lets anything get in the way of spinning a good yarn.
And, under the theatrical hand of Wolfe, the stories are decorated with dance and music to reveal themselves as complete theater pieces, beginning with, "Sweat," the most disturbing of the three stories.

Like all three tales, "Sweat" begins with Blues Speak Woman (Kim Nalley) and Guitar Man (Rodney Street) setting the tone musically for the entrance of washerwoman Delia (C. Kelly Wright), whose work over the wash tub doesn't end until her longtime husband, Donald E. Lacy Jr. (Sykes) comes home, and, often as not, beats her.
The abuse continues, even though it has been noticed by the Men on Joe Clark's Porch (Hosea L. Simmons Sr. and Reginald White) who serve as sort of commentators on the passing scene. It is a device that goes back to ancient Greek drama, but gets an engaging new twist here.
In fact, the whole show is infused with some delightful theatrical touches by director Darryl V. Jones, who uses everything from vaudeville styles to stylized forms of acting to help his hugely talented cast tell their stories.
The second tale, "Story in Harlem Slang," is based on a story Hurston wrote for the American Mercury, which defined current Harlem slang for readers by creating a conversation between two Harlem pimps.
In the show there are three, representing various generations: Slang Talk Man (White), Sweet Back (Simmons) a fur coat and platform shoe wearing dandy, and Jelly (Lacy) in a full-tilt zoot suit. They're trying to get women to notice them, and the piece plays for pure laughs.
The final tale, "The Gilded Six-Bits," features Wright as Missy May, a young wife; Simmons, as her husband, Joe; and Lacy as Slemons, owner of the ice cream parlor. The marriage is broken up when Joe comes home to find Missy and Slemons in the bedroom. The story unfolds beautifully with Joe trying to rebuild the relationship.
All of these are simple stories, yet they become engaging through Hurston's use of words, the singing, dancing and acting ability of the cast, and the wonderfully innovative way the stories are told.
As a bonus, singer Nalley is a show all by herself. Not only does she stop the show on several occasions with her towering voice and enormous stage presence, but she also wrote several of the songs in the piece.
Pat Craig is the Times theater critic. Reach him at 925-945-4736 or at

"Spunk," by Zora Neale Hurston, adapted by George C. Wolfe
Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, 620 Sutter St., San Francisco
Thursdays-Sundays through June 3
2 hours