Credit: Christopher Mueller

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What was the first show you saw in a theater? 

Not a school assembly. Not an auditorium tour of Les Mis. Not community theater outdoor Shakespeare, as fine as those experiences may be. 

The first show I ever saw in a theater was Spunk, George C. Wolfe’s colorful stage adaptation of three Zora Neale Hurston short stories. 23 years later, I finally had a chance to see Spunk again. Signature Theatre’s revival of the 1989 play with music is good, but revisiting this play triggered a trip down memory lane that made it even better. 

Spunk was an unlikely script to get a white future English major from suburban Baltimore hooked on theater. And in truth, I remember being more enthralled with the experience than the play’s specifics. We were juniors and seniors in our school’s lone creative writing class, taking a field trip to Center Stage to cap off the year. 

How I made it to 12th grade without ever visiting my hometown’s flagship theater says a lot about the state of public arts education funding, which from what I hear has only gotten worse. It also says a bit about my family. Only one of my grandparents managed to attend high school. While my father worked hard and climbed the social ladder, if you’ve seen Season 2 of The Wire, you’ve met my relatives, and you are not going to find Frank Sobotka at the theater. 

So thank you, Mrs. Wright. Somehow she got money for tickets, the tour, and a school bus. And equally important, she prepared us for the show. We studied the Harlem Renaissance, read Hurston’s three short stories that were the basis for Spunk, and got on that bus ready to appreciate early 20th century black vernacular as poetry. 

A theater, we learned, is much more than just a place where people enter, see a show and leave. That’s Radio City Music Hall, where months earlier, my parents had proudly taken our family to see the Rockettes. A real theater is where seamstresses spend hours backstage stitching costumes. It’s a place with rehearsal halls, like where the guys in Dead Poet’s Society prepared to put on a play, but for real. And at Center Stage, the theater was (at the time), a place with a bar tucked into a gorgeous Jesuit chapel. 

A theater is a place to experience spiritual magic. 

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That may make sound saccharine and simplistic. I swear my nostalgia is not, because Spunk includes depictions of rape, racism, and domestic abuse. As Hurston did in her short stories, Spunk accurately reflects the worst of humanity while still being about the light. It’s about resilience. That was my impression at age 18, and that’s my takeaway in 2019.

Too many plays—both of the school-assembly variety and those marketed to adults having dinner beforehand—are about issues rather than people. Seeing Spunk at Signature will not shatter the earth of any seasoned theatergoer, but it will serve as a reminder that good storytelling is far superior to brand messaging. 

Wolfe preserved much of Hurston’s signature dialogue from the three short stories he repackaged: “Sweat,” “Story in Harlem Slang” and “The Gilded Six-Bits.” The six performers include Jonathan Mosley-Perry as Guitar Man and Iyona Blake as Blues Speak Woman, plus an ensemble of three men and a woman who each take on a variety of roles. Blake returns to Signature with the same indomitable presence she brought to the theater’s recent staging of Ain’t Misbehavin’. She is a lady you don’t mess with, and she dresses the part, in a series of gorgeous robes and fascinators for each of the three vignettes. 

Director Timothy Douglas and music director Mark G. Meadows took some liberties with Chic Street Man’s original music, and the subtle ostinato-style underscoring that Mosley-Perry plays throughout the show is as transportive as the songs.

Spunk runs in the smaller of two black boxes at Signature, where Douglas made the bold choice to stage Spunk in the round. Occasionally words are lost as actors introduce their own lines, then change their vocal inflection to deliver dialogue in character, but otherwise, the immersive concept works. Narrators occasionally lock eyes with audience members, and twice I nearly jumped out of my seat in surprise.

The opening tale of domestic abuse is harrowing, and a cheeky story about two Harlem pimps (KenYatta Rogers and Marty Austin Lamar) attempting to rent themselves out for the afternoon follows. (Ines Nassara plays the well heeled lady who puts them in their place.) 

Watching Spunk now, after getting to know the works of August Wilson, I was struck by the importance of Spunk as a period drama with black female narratives at its forefront. In “Six-Bits,” a story about a husband and wife coping with coerced infidelity, you’ll find a more moving and nuanced depiction of marriage than in many plays that run three times as long.  

There are no student matinees scheduled during Signature’s run of Spunk, although a theater spokesperson said some school groups are purchasing tickets to regular showtimes at a discounted rate. That could explain why three disinterested young people at the performance I attended broke my heart by leaving at intermission. 

Maybe times have changed, and maybe teens who grew up playing with cell phones in the long shadows of Trayvon Martin and Columbine will never be transformed by a play like Spunk. Or maybe they just don’t have a teacher like Mrs. Wright, who taught me that while I can read all the books I want, theater will always be the best place to experience stories about humanity and hope.

To June 23 at 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. $40–$89. (703) 820-9771. sigtheatre.org.