'Spunk' stages three Zora Neale Hurston stories
by Richard Dodds
Donald E. Lacy Jr., C. Kelly Wright, and Kim Nalley in Spunk. Photo: Marc Paquette
Zora Neale Hurston, an icon of the Harlem Renaissance of 1920s, spent her final decades in ideological exile from the community she meant to exalt. She was a bootstrap capitalist who supported conservative Republicans, opposed forced school desegregation, and was condemned by fellow black writers for promulgating stereotypes. "She exploits that phase of Negro life which is 'quaint,' the phase which evokes a piteous smile on the lips of the 'superior' race," wrote Richard Wright (Native Son ) in reviewing one of Hurston's later novels.
But in the quaint can also be found anthropological acuity, and in the decades following her death in 1960, Hurston has again become a literary, cultural, and even feminist icon. First staged in 1989, Spunk, an adaptation of three Hurston short stories, has become the enduring theatrical reminder of her prodigious craft. Lorraine Hansberry Theatre is closing its season with a smartly staged and appealingly performed production of these edgy folktales.
Adapter and original director George C. Wolfe used a kind of story-theater approach, as characters speak both dialogue and narration, take turns at miming scenery, and provide Greek-chorus exclamation points. It's all been blended into a musical framework that can evoke a smoky nightclub at one moment and a mock minstrel show at another. The engaging Rodney Street is onstage throughout with guitar in hand to accompany the musical numbers by Chic Street Man and provide atmospheric accents.
Sweat, the first story, is a tale of revenge as a careworn washerwoman endures her abusive, sadistic husband until he unleashes the weapon of his own demise. Story in Harlem Slang is filled with period patois (a glossary is provided in the program) as two zoot suiters try to score a free meal off a savvy domestic enjoying her day off. In The Gilded Six-Bits, a woman must regain the trust of her husband after she strays with a gold-flashing hustler.
Kim Nalley is a kind of singing narrator, performing the original songs and a couple of her own compositions with a gritty grace. The lissome C. Kelly Wright can be both heartbreaking and a heartbreaker in her various guises. Donald E. Lacy Jr. plays both thugs and seducers with a kind of stylized charm. Hosea L. Simmons Jr. and Reginald White are also adept in their various personas that change over the course of the three stories.
Smoothly directed and choreographed by Darryl V. Jones on James J. Fenton's attractive multi-purpose set, Spunk is not high-intensity theater. Instead, it provides a confident stage equivalent of what Hurston rendered so evocatively on the page more than 70 years ago.
Spunk will run at Lorraine Hansberry Theatre through June 3. Tickets are $20-$32. Call 474-8800 or go to www.lhtsf.org.