At the Kennedy Center’s AFI National Film Theater to Aug. 12
“Love, I find, is like singing,” wrote Zora Neale Hurston. “Everybody can do enough to satisfy themselves, though it may not impress the neighbors as being very much.”
The wryness, the generosity of spirit, and the keen anthropological eye evident in that observation are all part of what has made Hurston such a celebrated writer; bighearted and perceptive, effortlessly evocative and always attentive to the telling ethnographic detail, she was the Harlem Renaissance’s arguably more versatile answer to that other Southern literary titan, Eudora Welty, an against-the-odds intellectual with an ear as attuned to the slow rhythms of rural dialect as to the jaunty bounce of Harlem slang.
And they’re all qualities that carry through clearly in Spunk, the crisp and vivid entertainment George C. Wolfe distilled a decade or so ago from three of Hurston’s stories. (The title tale is not included, though its key sentiment finds expression in the oft-reprised opening song.) If the musical’s rendering of her voice is necessarily less fine-grained than the unfiltered original, it’s still an admirable bit of theater, funny and sad and sassy by turnand in Darryl V. Jones’ fine production for the African Continuum Theatre Company, always brim-full of the warmth and humanity that mark Hurston’s work.
Kadejah Oni Higdon is one of the show’s chief virtues, doing strutting, soulful duty as both Blues Speak Woman (a kind of singing narrator Wolfe has used to pare the stories down to stage-manageable size) and a raft of minor characters. But there are hardly any weak linksand Deidra LaWan Starnes and KenYatta Rogers, the two figures who most often seem to occupy the center of the stage, are certifiable stars on the rise.
Starnes smolders and starts convincingly opposite a listlessly abusive Stephawn Stephens in “Sweat,” a tale of domestic brutality as tightly coiled and pitilessly efficient as the snake Hurston employs to deliver poetic justice in the story’s payoff. Rogers easily outshines the less energetic Doug Goldman (who, granted, has less to do) in the screamingly funny street scene two zoot-suited pimps cause with a friendly war of words and wardrobes. (“Pimp,” as Blues Speak Woman explains in the introduction to “Story in Harlem Slang,” carries in that kaleidoscopic tongue almost the direct inverse of its usual meaningthese are flashy young men on the hunt for women who’ll pick up the expense of a meal and maybe a night’s lodging in exchange for the pleasures of their companyand Hurston’s story is remarkable not just for the richness of its dozens-playing dialogue but for the quiet desperation that reads with painful clarity through the characters’ lines.)
The story that at last brings the two actors together for more than a minute or two doesn’t strike quite the same sparks that the others do; “The Gilded Six-Bits” deals deftly and lyrically with the simple riches of a solid marriage and the fool’s gold one partner sees in the dazzling stranger come lately to town, but it offers neither the life-and-death drama of “Sweat” nor the linguistic pyrotechnics of “Story.” Its unabashed romanticism feels a trifle naive when bookended against tales that look with such clarity on the less savory sides of life, though in a way that’s classic Hurston; she hoped and dreamed as avidly as she documented.
And in any case, Starnes and Rogers warm the final story’s soft-focus center with performances that fairly glow; they’ve got that elusive onstage chemistry that always connects audience to character. Stephens turns up again, comically narcissistic as the well-padded interloper whose big-city glamour turns out to be as superficial as his smile; Higdon adds warmth and humor as a mother-in-law so forbidding she can set a straying wife back on the straight and narrow with a metronome finger and few sternly sung repetitions of her name. Hard to picture? It’s hard to resist, too, and a prime example of the smart shortcuts Wolfe and his musical collaborator, the guitarist and composer Chic Street Man, take as they condense the stories.
The show’s music is uncomplicated and fervent, all soulful vocal and subdued acoustic guitar. The latter is played with confidence and no shortage of wit by Keith Lofton, who generated friendly laughter and a hum-along buzz at a student-packed final preview when he picked out the melody of a chart-topping OutKast track as a perfectly pitched setup for the Harlem street sequence. The ensemble is more than capable, though Higdon handles the bulk of the singing, which doesn’t involve as many stand-alone showpieces as you might expect in a blues-inflected show; instead, her narration weaves its way seamlessly in and out of ensemble numbers or solo turns that both punctuate and underscore the dramatic scenes.
An unintended side effect of her pervasiveness, the night of the preview, was that director Jones hadn’t always given Higdon quite enough to do when she wasn’t actively participating in a scene; it wouldn’t be noticeable in a space less cramped than the AFI Theater, but her idleness pulled focus once or twice from the actors at center stage. In general, though, Blues Speak Woman’s centrality to the narrative results in a show that feels something like a traditional musical, only less self-conscious about the excesses of musical expression.
It’s a show, in fact, that has precious little to be self-conscious about, a sparkling homage to one of the century’s great literary voices and a solid conclusion to a season that’s found the African Continuum Theatre Company on an artistic upswing. Hurston famously insisted that “those that don’t got it, can’t show it” and “those that got it, can’t hide it” and this Spunk has got it coming and going. CP