Archikulture Digest

Spunk and the Harlem Literati

Spunk and the Harlem Literati

Based on a play by Zora Neale Hurston

Adapted and Directed by Be Boyd

Starring Brianna Joseph, Maurice Mallard II, and Amanda Tavarez

UCF Conservatory Theatre, Orlando, FL</strong>

In the Harlem Heydays of the late 1920’s a debate raged: should black writers write the “black” stories of their experience, or attempt to mimic what “nice” people described in white literature? It’s an odd question in today’s society, but critical back in the day. Tonight we open with that debate at a party hosted by Zora Neale Hurston (Joseph). Luminaries in attendance include Langston Hughes (Joshua Goodrich), Wallace Thurman (Raleigh Mosely II), and Helene Johnson (Reva Stover), and their arguments tend to fall into what writers sometimes call “by the way, Jim…” That is, they take great pains to explain who they are and what they do so the audience can follow the action, but which all should be obvious to close friends. But it’s healthy and educational dialog, but ultimately not much more. The joy of this show revolves around an enhanced re-enactment of Hurston’s short play “Spunk.” Set in what we presume is Eatonville, FL in the 1920’s, we meet work gangs and church ladies and men interested in gambling and liquor. Spunk (Mallard) drifts into town looking for work; he’s directed to a job operating a saw mill, as the supporting cast helpfully points out “its dangerous job, everybody who’s done it has ended up dead.” But Spunk is up to it and he soon becomes essential to the town economy. At a church picnic he meets attractive Evelina (Tavarez) and begins a flirtation which upsets her husband Jim (Mosely). Jim resorts to mojo man Bishop (Dwayne Allen) whose skill with roots gets Jim killed and Spunk and Evelina happily married despite Bishop’s totally bizarre “Cat Dance” near the end. Maybe it’s all a lie; cats AREN’T supernatural creatures that can do their master’s bidding.

Spunk is an interesting guy; he charms the women but you suspect while his charms are temporary his impregnations last much longer. Allen’s Bishop has less stage time but is a worthy opponent; his charms and spell are most effective when applied to a gullible audience but if you keep score he’s as much bluster as the great Oz. Mrs. Joseph’s well-dressed narrator appears periodically to push the story along but you really want to spend more time at the church dance and its “Toe Party” or off with the boys telling tales and shooting dice. Nice people are nice, but naughty people are interesting. The set is magical (thanks to Morgan Burhoe, Brett Scott and Vandy Wood); rear projections extend shadow from the streets of Harlem to the peaks of Manhattan; then vines and tropical leaves appear from the arras and we fly to the relentless Central Florida heat. Occasional musical numbers flit along, but we never resolve the fundamental question of “How Should Black Authors Write?” I guess they should write however they want, and let the readers decide for themselves.

For more information on Theatre UCF visit http://www.theatre.ucf.edu


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