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‘Spunk’ Brings Zora Neale Hurston’s Stories Back to Life

Legend has it that the author/playwright/anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston could keep people riveted for hours with her lively storytelling. “Spunk,” now playing at the Signature Theatre keeps her spirit alive in a trilogy of short stories by Hurston, woven together by the blues.

Told through the narration of Blues Speak Woman, played by Iyona Blake, a regular with Signature, the soaring vocals she lays down to the backdrop of acoustic guitar by Jonathan Mosely-Perry as Guitar Man, bring the folksiness of Hurston’s tales into their fullness.

The first tale, “Sweat,” written in 1926, is one of Hurston’s most-read short stories, which are frequently overshadowed by her famous novel “Their Eyes Were Watching God.” But the stories in “Spunk” carry the same Southern Black down-home flavor as her 1937 classic novel.

The simple story of a marriage gone wrong is masterfully told with offstage sound effects, dialogue which weaves in and out with the characters telling their own story directly to the audience, and a sparse set of rugged wood designed by Luciana Stecconi.

The second tale, “Story in Harlem Slang,” takes place up North in New York City, but carries the Southern dialect and folkways into a familiar story of the Great Migration that Southern Blacks undertook following Reconstruction. The plight of Jelly (Marty Austen Lamar), an Alabama man who comes to New York City penniless, and his rivalry with another ne’er do well, Sweet Back (KenYatta Rogers) for the attention and financial support of well-paid women, is animated and full of dialect, even presenting a slow-motion fight scene/dance number.

In fact, Hurston was frequently criticized for her use of Southern Black vernacular, which while it authenticates the origins of her folktales, many saw as playing up to the white perception that African Americans were ignorant. It did not stop the author, who grounded much of her fiction in the research she conducted, recording Southern folkways as an Ivy League university-trained anthropologist. Hurston worked with acclaimed anthropologist Franz Boas to document the folkways of Southern Blacks and African-based religions in the Caribbean.

The final tale, “The Gilded Six Bits,” is yet another story of infidelity and marriage, chock full of old adages, period costumes using quilting and intricate stitchery (by Kendra Rai) and animated choreography (by Dane Figueroa Edidi) that takes full advantage of the theater in the round, as the small cast of six moved around and danced using all corners and different levels of the stage.

Ines Nassara, whose character is just referred to as “Folk Woman,” plays the female lead in all three plays, completely entrancing the audience with her strong voice, sinuous moves and engaging dialogue with the other characters and the audience.

The original adaptation of “Spunk” was created by George C. Wolfe, who also directed with music by Chic Street Man. The Signature Theatre production calls on the talents of Timothy Douglas, who recently directed the Arena Stage production of “Nina Simone: Four Women” and “Disgraced.”

“Our ever-shifting world seems to confront us daily with yet another angle of the human prism through which to view the holistic wonder and complexity of what it is to be a woman in what chronically has been a man’s world,” said director Timothy Douglas. “With this Signature Theater production of ‘Spunk,’ I, along with this luminous ensemble, have been charged to honor, embrace, and bring authentically to life the smart and lyrical sass of this writer’s Harlem Renaissance heyday — yet in doing so, it is with an informed theatrical abandon that we surrender to Zora Neale Hurston’s soulful language, thus allowing her to level up to a 21st-century sensibility, whereby her clear-eyed and sober heroines may proclaim through open throats, ‘me, too!'”

On June 2, a complementary program, “#OwnVoices: The Legacy of Zora Neale Hurston” will be held at Busboys & Poets-Shirlington at 5:00 p.m. The event will feature Glory Edim, author of “Well-Read Black Girl” and Hurston/Wright Foundation Board Member Melanie Hunter in conversation with a cast member of “Spunk” to discuss Zora Neale Hurston’s influence on American literature and today’s efforts to empower female authors. The event is free.

“Spunk” plays at the Signature Theatre’s ARK Theatre through June 23. Signature is located at 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington, Va., 22206. Call 703-820-9771 or go to www.sigtheatre.org for tickets and showtimes.

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