Goodman Studio Theatre

Whenever I sit in an audience to review a show I take copious notes, and intellectual-sounding terms like “juxtaposition,” “intentional artificiality,” and “representational/presentational” always seem to creep into my notebook. I have a master’s degree, after all.

Watching “Spunk” in the Goodman Studio Theatre, I found for the first time that I was unable to write anything. “Spunk,” a staging of three short stories by Harlem Renaissance author Zora Neale Hurston interspersed with a few blues numbers, presents itself in clear, passionate terms. There’s no need to dissect the performance because the show is so marvelously complete. Like all great works of art, it doesn’t need to be discussed; it needs to be experienced.

Unlike our accepted notion of “great art,” though, “Spunk” doesn’t take itself seriously for a moment. Director/choreographer Donald Douglass and his joyous cast understand that respect for Hurston’s work can manifest itself in playfulness rather than reverence, and they superbly capture the vitality and exuberance of Hurston’s stories.

At the same time, the cast provides the emotional depth the stories demand. As the narrator-type figure Blues Speak Woman (Shari A. Seals) explains during the prologue, the evening will be full of “that longing kind of, loving kind of, hurting kind of pain.” But she says this with an understanding smile on her face. As her counterpart Guitar Man (understudy Nick Colionne played the part the night I was there) explains, all of us know what it’s like to feel the blues.

Hurston’s stories are a lot like blues songs. The plots are simple, recognizable, emblematically human. Love and pain are inseparable. The stories presented–Sweat, Story in Harlem Slang, and The Gilded Six-Bits–are parables in which a central character goes through a transformational experience to learn something important about him- or herself.

Adapter George C. Wolfe appreciates the purity of Hurston’s prose. All the words spoken onstage are hers, and he has left a narrative presence intact. Douglass intelligently keeps his staging simple and uncluttered, and as a result the spoken images simply leap off the stage.

The cast has obviously taken the time to think about Hurston’s words, and an eloquently spoken line often conveys the thrust of an entire scene. In The Gilded Six-Bits, Missy May (JoNell Kennedy) and her husband Joe (Robert Barnett) spend three months estranged after Missy May sleeps with a traveling con man named Slemmons (Donald Griffin); when the couple finally spend a night together, Barnett simply turns to the audience and explains, with perfect understanding of his line, “Youth prevailed.”

The language is handled well throughout this production. This cast breathes life into words that I have never been able to fully understand on the page. This is especially true of Ellis Foster, who plays the central character of Jelly in Story in Harlem Slang. Jelly is a smooth-talking bullshit artist who spends most of his time trying to get women to buy him dinner. Foster not only gives Jelly an extraordinary physical presence, cocking everything from his hat brim to his fingertips, but nearly sings Hurston’s delightfully smooth, slangy prose.

But like the other stories presented, Story in Harlem Slang is more than a mere exercise in language; it’s a moment of deeply felt human pain. Jelly may be a cartoon in his purple zoot suit, but he’s a cartoon with a heart. Foster shows the vulnerable, frightened side of Jelly hidden just beneath his carefully polished exterior.

This is by no means a perfect production. Sometimes the cast pushes too hard, replacing acting with volume. But everyone onstage seems at home, especially the divinely talented Seals, who watches over everything with that beautiful smile and spontaneously bursts forth in gorgeous gospellike strains from time to time. The joy–the sheer feeling–that pervades this production holds everything together.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Liz Lauren.