Constantly Under Siege, Hurston’s Heroines Retain Their Admirable “Spunk”

👤By Perry Tannenbaum

Growing up in an all-black Florida town, Zora Neale Hurston faced – and distilled – hardships in her youth that weren’t about race. So in the canon of black literature, Hurston has had to wait her turn for the full value of her strong, understated feminism to be appreciated. By 1990, a full 30 years after she was buried in an unmarked grave, Hurston’s star had risen sufficiently that George C. Wolfe, already prominent at New York’s Public Theatre, adapted three of her sauciest tales for a production at the Public Theatre’s New York Shakespeare Festival that he called Spunk (actually the title of a fourth Hurston story), complemented with a blues score by Chic Street Man.

Hurston’s career actually shuttled between literature and anthropology, with stints as a folklorist before one of her last documented jobs, a substitute drama teacher at North Carolina College in Durham. If you read her most-anthologized story, “The Gilded Six Bits,” which is among the three Wolfe adapted, you’ll notice some shuttling in her style. As a narrator, Hurston is a precise detached observer with only a sliver of idiom impinging on her prose. Once her characters begin to speak, however, she’ll fracture grammar and spelling as zestfully as Mark Twain ever did.

“It is suggested,” Wolfe says in his intro to the published playscript, “that the rhythms of the dialect be played, instead of the dialect itself. A subtle but important distinction. The former will give you Zora. The latter, Amos and Andy.”

In the current On Q Performing Arts production at Spirit Square, director Jermaine Nakia Lee and his ebullient cast aren’t altogether intent on heeding Wolfe’s warning. Masks and puppets that appear in “Sweat” make no attempt to evoke Africa rather than minstrelsy. Jelly and Sweet Back, the hilarious self-pimping gigolos in “Story in Harlem Slang,” may be better dressed and better spoken, but they could still pass for Amos and Andy’s cousins. And while Shar Marlin as Blues Speak Woman cuts a figure very much like her previous onstage incarnations as Bessie Smith and Shug Avery, we have to take in Gabriel Jules as Guitar Man through the filters of a boater hat and a painted gray beard. Grayface?

Set in Hurston’s childhood home of Eatonville, “Sweat” is about the torments that Sykes Jones inflicts upon his wife Delia – parading a mistress around town, bombarding Delia with verbal abuse, and bringing a venomous snake home just because it terrifies her. Physical abuse might have been added to that list if Delia hadn’t gotten her hand around a frying pan. While outfitting the townspeople with masks and puppets further telegraphs to us that Sykes’ tyranny will be short-lived, the cracker-barrel flavor of the narrative is as much Uncle Remus as it is fairytale.

Lee’s style, flirting with downright offensiveness, is actually quite edgy, taking up the idea that, if whites can mock their country cousins as trash or rednecks, Northern blacks can claim the same liberties with their Southern brothers. In this respect, “Harlem Slang” has the same viewpoint as the opening story. Before fully rejecting the flatteries of Jelly and Sweet Back, with a scream worthy of a white woman, the Harlem washwoman (same profession as Delia) unmasks the two oozing sponges as Southerners who have moved North so they can sweet-talk their way through life instead of holding a job.

Fortunately, our savvy washerwoman takes her time rebuffing Jelly and Sweet Back, for they are quite the comedy combo vying for her favor. Omar El-Amin and Quentin Talley have been honing their onstage rapport for over seven years, mostly as the title protagonists of Miles & Coltrane, but this little one-act with its Jelly-Sweet Back foppery is the funniest they’ve been.

They remain antagonists after intermission, yet Hurston is flipping the geography thematically when we return to Eatonville for “The Gilded Six Bits.” All the false glitter comes from Chicago in the form of Otis D. Slemmons, played by Talley, who comes to town and opens up an ice cream shop, dazzling Missy May with his sweet talk and his rich façade.

As moody and nasty as El-Amin was as Sykes in “Sweat,” that’s how moody and virtuous he is as Missy May’s husband Joe in “Six Bits” – sufficiently stung by her infidelity to leave her, yet loving her deeply enough for there to be a path to forgiveness. There’s a naïveté to Nicole Watts’s portrayal of Missy Mae that puts me in mind of Nora, flitting around in her gilded cage as The Doll’s House begins, an innocence that has carried over into marriage. But she’s pathetic, melodramatic, and saccharine enough in her guilt to remind me of the smarmy urban fairytales of O’Henry.

Combined with the grim grit Watts brings to her earthy Delia and the sassy ripostes she tosses off eluding her pursuers in “Harlem Slang,” there’s enough variety and spunk from Watts to match up well with El-Amin and Talley – maybe enough to establish her two washwomen and a mostly dutiful housewife as authentic feminist heroines. But the style Lee brings to the production doesn’t completely commit to placing Hurston and her protagonists up on that high pedestal. Remembering how Wolfe had lovingly lambasted the pieties of A Raisin in the Sun in his Colored Museum, I suspect some lingering ambivalence was exactly what the playwright slyly intended.

The blues songs that suffuse the storytelling, rooted in sadness and suffering yet somehow bursting with joy as Marlin sings, underscore this rich gumbo of conflicting moods. It takes blues, grit, pain, spit, and spunk to “Git to the Git,” the song that frames the evening. From a revolutionary’s perspective, celebrating the struggle may be copping out, but Wolfe lets Blues Speak Woman interpolate some remarks into her swinging intro that explain Hurston’s viewpoint. These three stories, she says, “celebrate the laughin’ kind of lovin’ kind of hurtin’ kind of pain that comes from bein’ human.”

Sounds about right.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s