Hurston’s words flourish on stageWritten by Lauri Donahue | | firstname.lastname@example.org
“Spunk” is about the “laughin’ kind of lovin’ kind of hurtin’ kind of pain that comes from being human.” It’s a theatrical setting, by George C. Wolfe (“The Colored Museum,” “Jelly’s Last Jam”), of three short stories by Harlem Renaissance author Zora Neale Hurston (“Their Eyes Were Watching God”), with music by Chic Street Man.
Detroit’s Plowshares Theatre Company’s production combines blues, gospel, dance, poetic narrative, masks, a life-sized puppet and slang-laced dialogue to bring the tales to vibrant life.
Felicia Taha plays Blues Speak Woman, the principal narrator. She has a lyrical voice and a sly, watchful manner that suits the character’s all-knowing perspective. She’s backed by Michael Turner as Guitar Man and the virtuoso Marvin Thompson, Jr. (who is also the musical director) as Piano Man.
In each of the three acts, Danyé Evonnté Brown embodies the “spunk” of the title. In “Sweat,” she’s a washerwoman abused by her no-account husband until she finally turns the tables on him. In “Story in Harlem Slang,” she’s a self-confident domestic who’s not about to buy the flattery of two dandified hustlers looking for a free meal. In “The Gilded Six Bits,” she’s a happily married young wife taken in by the glitter of fool’s gold.
The men in her life are played by Cornelius Harris, Walter Lindsey and Mateen Stewart. All the actors are strong, and Stewart is especially appealing as a preening pimp and as a rural factory worker poor in everything but love.
Hurston’s language is poignant and pungent by turns and the wonderful one-liners just keep coming: “The heat was meltin’ their civic virtue” is only one example.
Director Janet Cleveland sets a smooth, deliberate pace for her well-matched actors. The lights (Ron Burns) and simple but versatile set design (Christopher Carothers) support the varying moods. The costumes (Mary Copenhagen) are especially good: her zoot suits (one in lipstick red, the other navy with acid-yellow trim) are comic works of art.
The only flaw in this polished production is the ill-considered sound design (John Woolridge III). The performers, all strong singers, are over-amped for the intimate space, distortion too often grates on the ear and the bulk of a transmitter under a costume is reminiscent of a presidential debate.
“Spunk” runs through June 19 at the General Motors Theatre in the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit. Tickets are $10-25 and available at (313) 872-0279 or www.plowshares.org.