Zora Neale Hurston wasn’t one to countenance pity or sentimentalism or B.S. of any kind, really. This was the writer, the fresh wry voice behind the college-reading staple Their Eyes Were Watching God, who said, “Love, I find, is like singing. Everybody can do enough to satisfy themselves, though it may not impress the neighbors as being very much.”
She was, in a word, spunky. So, it seems, is Penumbra Theatre, which has turned the lights back on after a season-long dormancy (and a strong financial campaign), to present SPUNK, a wonderfully juxtaposed series of three short stories by Neale Hurston. The play made its Off Broadway debut in 1990, and the stories stretch back many decades before then, yet the production has a timelessness, rooted as it is in folklore and the blues.
The actors, too, have an outsized energy that comes from tightly drawn characters and tight dialogue. They break into song often and naturally—blues and gospel or simply moaning—particularly Jevetta Steele as a master of blues ceremonies and Dennis Spears as a wizened bluesman. The show plays to their strengths, and they have incredible fun with it, including an inspired and sassy duet between stories.
The stories themselves range from two tough marriages to an incredibly fun encounter between two Harlem gigolos, all set during the Great Migration, the characters torn between the big shiny city and the familiar country. And they’re a blast as they unspool. That’s a tribute to Neale Hurston’s big-hearted humor and her subversive objectives—she sought to untangle and update the African-American story from its early 20th-century stereotypes. That she succeeded, more so than many stories even today, is apparent in the pulsing, tense depictions—suspense demands believability.
The characters often narrate their own actions as they perform them, pulling the audience out of the narrow box of these particular actors on this particular stage and into the larger realm of fable—of a story that’s been told time and again. The device also underscores the script, which is, well, writerly, taken as it is from a book, but is no less dramatic for it. Neale Hurston, it turns out, is as fresh and wry now as she ever was.
Through April 7
Penumbra Theatre, 270 N. Kent St., St. Paul