Directed by Akin Babatundé
Set Design by Jeff Schmidt
Lighting Design by Jason Foster
Properties Design by Gillian Salerno-Rebic
Costume Design by Michael Robinson
Sound Design by Jordana Abrenica
Choreography by Kristen Bond and Akin Babatundé
Music Consultation by Geno Young
Stage Management by Jayne Marrs
Liz Mikel as Blues Speak Woman
Joshua Bridgewater as The Folk
Tiffany D. Hobbs as The Folk
Marcus M. Mauldin as The Folk
Calvin Roberts as The Folk
Kevin Macintosh as Guitar Man
Reviewed Performance 4/14/2014
Reviewed by Mary L. Clark, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
Zora Neale Hurston was as big a part of the Harlem Renaissance cultural movement as Langston Hughes, Alberta Hunter, Fats Waller, Paul Robeson or Josephine Baker. Also known as the “New Negro Movement”, the list of literary, visual and performing artists who were given the opportunity to express themselves is extensive, and that era a fascinating and mind-opening read.
Hurston was a true southern woman. Born in Alabama in 1891 (though she claimed to be born in 1901 in Florida), she left home around age ten after her mother died. Sent off to school by relatives, she worked her way through high school then Howard University, and it was there she wrote her first short story. This led to recognition, work with New York magazine, Opportunity, and her eventual move there. She couldn’t have arrived at a better time if she tried. Hurston’s collective works include four novels, plays and well over fifty short stories. She often wrote using the vernacular of southern speech and syntax, her most remembered work being Their Eyes Were Watching God, a story of love and loss.
This woman of poor beginnings received scholarships to Barnard and studied with renowned anthropologist Franz Boas. It was here she realized her desire to research and record the folklore of her ancestry. As folk anthropologist and novelist, she wandered through the big cities and small towns and farms of the south, hearing people’s stories and affirming their lives. She collected songs, customs, and folklore and put them to verse in her short stories, novels and plays. Three of those stories, combined under the name Spunk and adapted by George C. Wolfe, come to life onstage at WaterTower Theatre. Blending her wit, irreverence and a true chronicling of the beauty and wholeness of the black American experience, these stories deal with poverty, abuse, big-city hustling and the power of both betrayal and love. Letting some of Hurston’s wit rub off on him, Wolfe set the place in “O, way down nearby” and the time “Round about long ‘go”. The first, Sweat, tells of a young woman who takes in the white folk’s laundry week after week, her abusive husband, and the moment of karma that sets her free. Story in Harlem Slang moves ahead to NYC in the 1940’s with some not-so-street-smart gigolos and a slew of jive talk. Lastly, a young couple’s loving relationship is tested by temptation and the need to forgive in The Gilded Six-Bits.
Taking cues from Wolfe’s easy-going style in adapting Hurston’s tales, and the music of Chic Street Man, Director Akin Babatundé stages Spunk with the seeming simplicity of street theatre, where actors play inanimate objects, hand props to others as they pass by, change characters with a turn, and move scenes with a song. Minimal set pieces perform several tasks, the scenes are swift and almost everything is easily understood. I’ve done gorilla theatre before, and it is more improvisation than scripted, but here Wolfe takes Hurston’s stories almost word for word, the dialogue shifting from one actor to another like a hot potato. The actors speak as both character and narrator, often times telling the story and then saying the dialogue in the same lines. A wonderful style, having the actors be all things at all times, it is fascinating to listen to and watch them bring these stories to life.
Kevin Macintosh as Guitar Man sets the mood, with steel guitar and a slow-swagger walk into the theatre space. Seated to the side upstage, he is the mood maker for all the stories and connecting scenes in between. A fine musician, his music resonates across the stage and into the rafters.
All five actors play different roles within the stories, as well as being scene changers via song and dance. They sound great together in WaterTower’s voluminous space, echoing the sounds of the Roaring 20’s, the small bars and large nightclubs, and the Harlem beat.
Wolfe names four characters of the stories The Folk, with everyperson significance. The fifth is Blues Speak Woman who has small parts in the stories but is essentially the play’s soul and oracle, hence the name. Her presence is almost always onstage, singing us into the next tale and defining its mood.
Liz Mikel plays Blues Speak Woman and her stage presence in Spunk is not to be messed with. She sings a song called “Spunk and it so fits Ms. Mikel’s personality and talent. Whether singing the blues, jiving to the beat, or hilariously strutting her stuff as the “other woman” in Sweat, Mikel is vibrant, funny, not-so-subtle and, most importantly, always in the moment on stage, no matter what she’s doing. A beautiful feature not often found in theatre, Mikel makes it textbook.
As the fast-talking, zoot-suited hustler in Story in Harlem Slang, and the gold-toothed tempter in A Gilded Six-Bits, Marcus M. Mauldin certainly understands a character’s “bs” when he sees and hears it. It is his character Sykes in Sweat that truly shows his dramatic ability as a vindictive, evil man. Mauldin’s deep, resounding bass voice fairly rattles the theatre walls, and the hatred shown in Mauldin’s eyes for his character’s wife makes one feel uneasy, and putting goosebumps on my arms.
Joshua Bridgewater has some smaller roles as a gossipy townsman or a kindly, candy store clerk, but oh my, does he shine in Story in Harlem Slang as the Alabama man hustling in Harlem, nick-named Jelly “’cause jam don’t shake”. Using every trick and line in the book, his character and Mauldin’s Sweet Back lay it on thick with rapid-fire retorts to prove to the ladies, and to themselves, just how cool and hip they are - can you dig it?. The dialogue for both is unbelievably difficult, as Hurston uses what she calls “Harlemese” slang, and between those and the southern vernacular of her words, Bridgewater’s performance is spectacular if only for the dialogue. His moves are smooth and he fairly glides across the floor in pursuit of a woman to buy him “a hot” or some “scrap iron” (a meal and some cheap liquor).
Playing three characters, Tiffany D. Hobbs shows women at opposite ends of the emotional spectrum. Her “girl out on the town” is sure of herself, takes no jive, and easily makes the two lotharios eat their words. Delia, in Sweat, shows all the tiredness of the world in her eyes and body, and her fear of Sykes is apparent in her facial expression and voice. Missie May in The Gilded Six-Bits proves Hobbs’ versatility. The joy of her character’s life with husband Joe shows in the way Hobbs moves, smiles, and speaks. The couple’s love is easily transparent, and just as easily do we see their estrangement mainly through her eyes, pleas and stance. Missie May’s world is now heavier to bear and Hobbs plays her like a glass window, seeing straight through the persona to her true emotions.
Wearing another zoot suit and acting as referee in the battle of the jive talkers, Calvin Roberts’ character is certainly bright and witty. However, his Joe in The Gilded Six-Bits is a standout. Fun-loving husband to Missie May, Joe loves life and his wife equally. When that love is severely tested, instead of overacting with body and voice, Roberts uses small gestures, reserved stance and quiet voice to emphasize his pain. It’s his eyes, though, that give him away, and his performance is one of anguished control.
Another standout is the highly economical, easily maneuvered and visually wonderful set by Jeff Schmidt. Impressed with his inventive sets from other productions, this one equals in design and playfulness. The main stage is a “fashion” runway, only this time mock-painted as an old, wood-planked boardwalk. The sides ramp down in opposite directions and a square “gazebo” looms in the back with ringed curtain in front for a shower curtain and metal ladder in back much like a tenement fire escape. Trap doors in the walkway hold set pieces and props for easy access. The star, though, is the floor to high ceiling triptych mural, bathed in red as the audience enters the space. Representing the three stories, the middle one is cartoon-drawn like the entrance to an alleyway dive bar. The third is a silhouette landscape of tree grove and small lake. The first mural is a mindblower. Huge pieces of laundry – shirts, belts, sweaters, dresses – fall out of the painting like a 3D movie. It’s a wow factor and another big notch in the belt of creativity for Schmidt.
Equally as exciting is lighting by Jason Foster. With the look of sharp angular lines from early surrealistic paintings and the feel of smoke-filled nightclubs, aided by fog, the spots cut across the overhead like knives and make delightful imagery. Additional gobos make the lake shimmer and turn the crescent moon to full. Small, blue-hued, individual spots hit the actors precisely in between stories. Foster uses softer, golden hues for the two country tales, and the red wash over the mural in preshow hides its gems well.
Costuming for all three stories could be difficult in the swift pace of the production, but Michael Robinson’s inventiveness proves he knows how to dress ‘em fast. Button-down shirts, their sleeves rolled up, slacks and suspenders work for the country men, the women in flower-printed, shirtwaist dresses or uptown suit. The full, flowing zoot suits in cobalt blue, cardinal red and acid green probably hide other clothing layers. Robinson’s highlight is Liz Mikel’s voluptuous, jazz singer gown in soft, dusky blue, finished off with a cloche hat and egret feather.
Sound has some challenges, mainly the competition between natural, projected voice and mic’d voice. Several times, you can hear them both, a half second apart, leaving voices echoing and imbalanced. Otherwise, the actors’ singing rings through the house and the guitar pierces the air.
My one and only negative is the speed of the dialogue, most especially in Story in Harlem Slang. When Hurston’s published story and the playbill have a glossary of the slang words and phrases, it's obvious they’re for our untrained ears. Almost the entire story is written in “Harlemese” so that slowing the pace of the dialogue is not only helpful, it’s essential, otherwise the plot is utterly lost.
The Great Depression dried up all academia financial backing for Hurston's work, and though she still wrote, the famed folk anthropologist and author worked as maid, librarian and substitute teacher in order to survive. Failing in health, her literary accomplishments virtually forgotten, she tragically died alone in 1960, without family or friends. Hurston would have been lost to most except for writer Alice Walker, taken by Hurston’s work, who wrote an article about her in 1973. She later erected a headstone on Hurston's unmarked grave with the words, “Zora Neale Hurston – A Genius of the South”. WaterTower Theatre’s production of Spunk is a celebration of this courageous woman’s amazing life. The stories are visually exciting, creatively directed, upbeat and emotionally stirring, and theatre that both teaches and inspires.
Addison Theatre Centre
15650 Addison Road
Addison, TX 75001
Play runs through May 4th
Wednesday-Thursday at 7:30 pm, Friday-Saturday at 8:00 pm, Saturday (April 26th and May 3rd) at 2:00 pm, and Sunday at 2:00 pm
Ticket price range from $20.00 - $40.00 and can be purchased online at www.watertowertheatre.org or by calling 972-450-6232. You may also get tickets at their box office, Tuesday-Friday, noon to 6:00 pm.