ArtsATL > Theater > Review: True Colors’ “Spunk” expertly tells three of Zora Neale Hurston’s tales “in key of blues”

Review: True Colors’ “Spunk” expertly tells three of Zora Neale Hurston’s tales “in key of blues”

Tawana Lael (left) and Bernadine Mitchell in "Spunk."
Tawana Lael (left) and Bernadine Mitchell in "Spunk."
Tawana Lael (left) and Bernadine Mitchell in “Spunk.” (Photo by Joe Phillip)

True Colors Theatre’s production of “Spunk,” at 14th Street Playhouse through October 13, offers three tales “in the key of blues,” as a narrator informs us at the opening of the show. It’s a compendium of three stories by Harlem Renaissance writer Zora Neale Hurston, adapted by George C. Wolfe and infused with great blues music by Chic Street Man and S. Renee Clark.

Hurston, perhaps best known as the author of the classic novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, is such a bright and seemingly fixed star in the firmament of African-American literature that it’s easy to forget that she was once a controversial figure. It is precisely the sort of vernacular stories in “Spunk” that caused her reputation to go through a low period. She was all but forgotten, her books out of print, until her reputation was posthumously revived by Alice Walker in the 1970s.

In Hurston’s own time, many black intellectuals and artists, who were working in a very different vein, felt that her depictions of everyday life were harmful in that they were often written in dialect and presented a stereotypical image for the delectation of white audiences. “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, author of Black Boy and Native Son, in his review of Their Eyes Were Watching God.

But as Walker argued, and as later readers and critics have come to accept, Hurston was a folklorist, seeking to record the speech, as well as the concerns, aspirations and disappointments, of everyday people, without the more explicit political framework that writers such as Wright often used. Her work and characters, particularly the women, show a strong streak toward an almost prescient sort of contemporary independence and individualism. Especially lovely in the True Colors production is the final story, of a marriage destroyed by money and infidelity, then restored through enduring love.

The program comes with a glossary (the second story is told in Harlem slang), but there’s actually no trouble understanding or following the sense of what’s being said, even if a glimpse at the program may be helpful during the second story. As Hurston understood, words encapsulate much of a culture. One character derisively refers to another as a “Russian,” meaning he’s not the city sophisticate he pretends to be on the streets of Harlem but is a recent arrival, a bumpkin from Alabama who rushed to get out of his hometown.

Though Hurston used the language, structure, big emotions and irresistible narrative pull of folk tales to tell her stories, ultimately she employed the complex characterization and nuanced endings of the literary short story. It gives the stories a beautiful depth, but it also makes them sit less comfortably as musical theater. Audiences expect musicals to blow the roof off the theater, but in her stories Hurston tends to play notes that are quiet and complex.

Even the first one here, which ends in violence, veers toward an interior contemplation of the moment, and the second — a playful exchange of insults and braggadocio between Harlem hustlers — is given a bittersweet edge by a nuanced ending. These stories don’t sit perfectly in the genre of musical theater, which ends up as both strength and weakness.

Fortunately, the music we do get is extraordinary, primarily due to the two singing narrators who hover over the action of the strong ensemble cast: Bernadine Mitchell and Theodis Ealey. Their number “Too Good Looking for You,” which opens the second story, nearly stops the show and alone is worth the price of admission. Mitchell’s voice and Ealey’s guitar playing are effectively used throughout. In the end, “Spunk” delivers on its title, offering bold and brassy tales in the key of life.

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