Performing Arts » Performing Arts Review

The sweet, sharp stereotypes of Spunk

Court Theatre revives George C. Wolfe's stage version of three stories by Zora Neale Hurston

by

comment

In a 1937 review for the New Masses magazine, Richard Wright—just three years away from publishing Native Son—essentially accused Zora Neale Hurston of writing like an Auntie Tom. "Miss Hurston voluntarily continues . . . the tradition which was forced upon the Negro in the theatre," he charged, with italics, "that is, the minstrel technique that makes the 'white folks' laugh. Her characters eat and laugh and cry and work and kill; they swing like a pendulum eternally in that safe and narrow orbit in which America likes to see the Negro live: between laughter and tears."

Like it or not, Wright had a point—and George C. Wolfe's Spunk, running now in a fine Court Theatre revival, pretty much proves it.

Wolfe's 1989 stage version of three Hurston stories locates its Negroes squarely between laughter and tears. These are all poor, apolitical, unworldly folks—backwoods even when they live in Harlem—whose lives are bound by church and sex, and whose conversations are carried on mostly in a crude southern patois. A few are outright cartoons, like Slemmons, the Chicago huckster who shows up in the little black hamlet of Eatonsville, Florida (Hurston's equivalent of William Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County), sporting a mouthful of gold teeth and a fancy stickpin in his tie. But nobody here can be said to have a sense of a life that extends beyond his immediate pleasures and pains. They don't exhibit class consciousness, racial solidarity, or the fury of the oppressed. Hurston's people eat, laugh, cry, work, and kill, exactly as Wright had it. Those with pluck enough to take the great leap north are really just plucky rubes, seeking "wealth and splendor in Harlem without working."

Wolfe's settings of the stories emphasize down-home tropes, as well. He ties the evening together with bits involving two metacharacters called Blues Speak Woman and Guitar Man, whose songs and suggestive banter—though stunningly handled by Alexis Rogers and fast-fingered Kelvyn Bell—come across as picturesque and familiar.

And yet, if Hurston staked out a territory full of Caucasian-soothing types, she also dug deep into it, turning up curious and compelling nuggets. And that's how Spunk transcends Wright's indictment.

Delia, the heroine of "Sweat," is the model of the superstitious hick, the one you know from old movies, who goes wide-eyed at the thought of a ghost. In her case it's snakes that make her sweat—a phobia her vicious husband, Sykes, fully exploits. But as the piece develops and Sykes suffers his ironic comeuppance, her fear morphs into a kind of strange, silent courage and we see something of the mastery she's attained in her suffering. Likewise, Missy May and Joe, the young married couple in "The Gilded Six-Bits," start off looking like sweet simpletons. When an ugly complication comes between them, however, their simplicity starts looking profound and their tale becomes a parable about the power of love. We're even allowed a glimpse behind the reet facades put up by the pimpin' zoot-suiters in Hurston's "A Story in Harlem Slang."

Ultimately, and maybe oddly, Hurston reminds me of no one so much as Sholem Aleichem, the chronicler of Ashkenazic shtetl life whose Tevye got turned into an American cultural icon thanks to Fiddler on the Roof. Both writers were essentially folklorists working in fiction. Neither had Wright's angry, didactic urge. Each preferred affectionate sketches to inquests into the ugly truth, and as a consequence each danced close to cliche. What saved Hurston and Aleichem in the end was their insight that the truth, being the truth, wasn't ugly after all.

No one needs to save this production directed by Seret Scott. The acting ensemble—consisting of Chris Boykin, Kenn Head, Patrese McClain, and Michael Pogue—is flawless.

Add a comment