Q&A: ‘Spunk’ salutes pioneer Zora Neale Hurston at Signature Theatre

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews 'Spunk' at Signature Theatre (Jason Fraley)

From Alice Walker to Toni Morrison, generations of African-American women learned from Zora Neale Hurston, a prolific author who wrote the 1937 novel “Their Eyes Were Watching God.”

Now, three of her short stories are woven together in Signature Theatre’s “Spunk,” reflecting her life from her youth in Eatonville, Florida, to her adulthood during the Harlem Renaissance.

“The women in these stories are the people that bring it forward,” actress Ines Nassara told WTOP. “To be able to write that in the 1920s as a black woman is a huge thing. She was unapologetically herself. She wasn’t going to let anyone stop her from writing. She knew what she was writing was important and needed to be told and were true stories. It’s not like we were a weak, marginalized group. We had agency, power. We were triumphant and resilient.”

Not only was Hurston a brilliant writer, she was a social commentator of cultural trends.

“She’s an anthropologist by trade,” actor KenYatta Rogers added. “She’s not only someone who can listen to how people speak and the rhythms of how people speak, but she’s also someone who can take a 20-foot, 70-foot, 100-foot look down below to say, ‘I can dissect what’s going on in society and also have a little fun while I’m doing it.’ She’s brilliant that way.”

The first short story, “Sweat” (1926), is about a hardworking washerwoman named Delia, who lives with her longtime abusive husband Sykes amid the intense heat of rural Central Florida.

“They’ve had a contentious relationship from the beginning,” Rogers said. “Sykes has issues. … The town sees it, everyone sees it, but it’s about her journey from a space of, ‘What do I do in this relationship, knowing I love him, trying to love him the best I can?’ to ‘I think I need to find space for myself and how do I love myself?’ There are battles between the two that have to do with property, identity, who’s up and down in the relationship. You’ll have to see who wins!”

The second tale, “Story in Harlem Slang” (1942), follows a pair of zoot suiters in 1940s Harlem.

“It’s just this beautiful relationship and dynamic of two men going at each other, competing against each other, catching up with each other,” Nassara said. “They’re these two pimps, just exaggerating but also telling really funny stories about their lives and their relationships with women. There’s a woman that comes at the end, they’re trying to holler at her, she’s enjoying it, taking it in, but then puts them in their place: ‘No, you’re not going to talk to me like that.'”

The third story, “The Gilded Six-Bits,” explores a young husband and wife navigating marriage.

“You look into the relationship of Missy May and Joe Banks,” Nassara said. “They’re this lovely couple in the beginning, then there is this horrible thing that happens in the middle of their marriage. You see them grappling with that and trying to rebuild their marriage and keep it strong. It’s this beautiful dynamic of marriage and relationships and how hard it is. There’s a story of redemption in the end and how they make it work despite what society may say. The mother of Joe Banks lands it to them: ‘No, you will stay in this relationship and make it work.'”

“It’s about patience, love and making sure you look into each other’s eyes and that you end up together at the end of the day,” Rogers said. “There are so many beautiful things that older couples say to me, ‘Never go to bed angry,’ and, ‘Stay back to back and let nothing between you,’ but there’s also this patience that time will heal you. It’s good to have sages tell you what to do — thank you, mama — but it’s also about passage of time and how wounds can heal.”

It’s all woven together by playwright George C. Wolfe, director Timothy Douglas and musician Chic Street Man via Guitar Man (Jonathan Mosley-Perry) and Blues Speak Woman (Iyona Blake), not to mention an ensemble cast that includes Marty Austin Lamar and Drew Drake.

“It’s episodic,” Rogers said. “Wolfe put this together with Chic Street Man, and they came up with this bluesy, jazzy riff that happens in between. Lighting wise, yes, you’re going to have some spaces where you say one scene is over, but it flows through the music, mostly guitar but also lots of singing. The stories are stitched together and told in the key of the blues. The blues is ever-present, not only between the pieces but inside the pieces themselves.”

Along the way, the set and wardrobe departments balance period and current aesthetics.

“The costumes, although they hint to period, everything old is new again, so you can see some influences of 2019,” Rogers said. “There’s bits and pieces, there’s some kente that shows up in interesting pattern work by our costume designer Kendra Rai. … The costumes hint at period and evoke who these people are, but they don’t only land in period. They tell a story beyond just that [era] about people and their endurance throughout the American experiment.”

That glorious experiment continues this month in “Spunk,” its title reflective of its theme.

“It is about resiliency, taking what you’ve been given, which isn’t much, and turning it into a fully fleshed-out, beautiful, exuberant culture,” Rogers said. “You live your life, but within the African-American experience, it is done with zest, flair, love. That goes into everything we do: how we love hard, how we fight hard, how we cook, how we dress. There is a signature to the way we do things here in America that’s one of the greatest American exports that people around the world try to copy … So, that right there puts it all into one little fun word: ‘Spunk.'”

Find more details on the theater website. Hear my full conversation with the cast below:

WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with the cast of 'Spunk' (Full Interview) (Jason Fraley)

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