EYES, ETA Creative Arts Foundation. Zora Neale Hurston's vibrant, vital 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God provided a much needed counterpoint to the male-dominated narratives of the Harlem Renaissance--indeed, Hurston's celebratory portrait of southern rural life from a female perspective drew barbs from Richard Wright. Forgotten by the literary establishment for many years, the story of Janie Crawford's search for love and happiness on her own terms in the Florida Everglades blazed back into prominence in the late 70s, thanks in part to Alice Walker's 1975 Ms. article about the writer.
Mari Evans's 1979 adaptation mostly stays true to the plot and rich dialect of Hurston's novel, though somewhere along the way the pulse of the tale gets lost. More a play with music than a musical, the show is burdened with midtempo ballads that fail to evoke either the southern setting or the heroine's burning spirit. (The liveliest number is a rendition of "This Little Light of Mine.") Alana Arenas has Janie's longing nature down pat, but the passion of her third marriage, to the young charmer Tea Cake (Terrance Watts), feels polite and polished compared to the tumultuous romance depicted in Hurston's book. Runako Jahi's staging also feels muted and tentative, though several fine supporting performances provide insight into the teasing rough-and-tumble culture Hurston loved.