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Hurston’s “Spunk” Still Sings

September 29, 2007

Spunk Still Sings: Hurston’s blues tales shape performance

By Kwan Booth

Fiction writer and folklorist Zora Neale Hurston was one of the most celebrated and controversial black cultural figures of the 20th century. Her feminist stance and dedication to traditional black dialect and mythology won her praise and condemnation up until her death in 1960. In “Spunk, Three Tales by Zora Neale Hurston” which runs through June 3 at the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, Hurston’s gift for language and ability to evoke a scene shine through.

The play, named after Hurston’s 1925 short story, is a stage adaptation of three additional stories- “Sweat”, “Story in Harlem Slang”, and “The Gilded Six Bits” which play out in the deep south and Harlem streets after the turn of the century. Through a series of character changes, running commentary and bawdy tunes, the cast of Kim Nalley, C. Kelly Wright, Donald Lacy Jr., Hosea L. Simmons Jr., and Reginald White conjure up the blues feeling found in Hurston’s best work.

“Sweat” is the story of Delia, a washwoman in the deep south forced to endure the abuse of her evil husband “Sykes,” played by Lacy. Sykes tries every trick in the book to torment Delia into abandoning their home, paid for by her years of washing laundry for wealthy whites. In the end Delia turns the tables with the help of an unexpected ally that puts a final end to her slithering husband.

“Story in Harlem Slang”, for which a glossary of terms is included in the program, is one of the most aptly named pieces in fiction history. The segment features two zoot suited hustlers dishing dozens on a Harlem street corner, too broke to afford dinner but too caught up the street life to admit it. Their luck seems to change when an unsuspecting woman walks into their web of fast talk. After a series of passes, the desperation of the men becomes clear and the story takes on a larger theme than the initial bull session.

Hurston has been noted for her strong use of female characters and both “Sweat” and “Slang” feature heroines that prevail in the face of adversity-in this case no good men. “The Gilded Six Bits” however, which begins with an almost picture perfect husband and wife scene, shows a fleshed out female character of a different stripe. After a night of indiscretion, Missy May must face the disappointment of her husband Joe and the separation that ensues.

Taken as a whole, the play provides a lyrical look at black life in the early 1900’s. While Hurston has been criticised for her use of dialect and a perceived “male bashing” in her work, this production, directed by Darryl V. Jones, shows what she will be remembered for primarily- a gifted storyteller with an ear for language.

Spunk: Three Tales by Zora Neale Hurston plays through June 3. Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, 620 Sutter St., San Francisco. Tickets: $20-$32. Call (415) 474-8800 or go to www.lhtsf.org).

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