I suspect that when word-of-mouth gets around there won’t be a seat left at Crossroads Theater for “Letters From Zora: In Her Own Words,” one of the most engaging and beautifully acted plays you are likely to see this season. It’s a perfect selection for this theater that has been celebrating the entire African Diaspora for the past 35 years.
Don’t let the word “Letters” throw you off. We are captivated at the start when an attractive woman wearing a notably vintage hat with a feather and a fur-collared coat makes her entrance, nothing pretentious, just something about her look . . . we’ll give that to the actor Vanessa Bell Calloway, who knows what that means and to her character, Zora Neale Hurston, who will later say “How someone could deny themselves the pleasure of my company is beyond me.”
For the next 90 minutes you are likely to be captivated, awed, and enthralled by Calloway, as she portrays that famed and defamed, lauded and criticized, celebrated and sued, lusty and lively literary legend in her own time. Yes, Hurston was all that as well as a noted anthropologist. So be prepared for a gripping and often humorous narrative combined with performance artistry.
A stage, screen, and television actress who has earned eight NAACP Image Award nominations, Calloway is also a professional dancer. She makes full use of the stage that has been dressed with selected furnishings and props. They are all significant and used during the performance to reveal Hurston as a larger-than-life woman. Through Calloway, Hurston becomes as imposing as is the screen behind her upon which we see her writings and also photos of others prominent in her life.
For the rest of her performance, Calloway wears a smart-looking black dress with enough flair to allow her expressive body to sashay, dance, and of course age as it serves her compelling story — one that undeniably defines her as a legend for all time. How rewarding it must have been for the large block of students, presumably from nearby Rutgers University, whose attention appeared as rapt as was everyone’s throughout the performance: one that invokes the pleasures, the pain and, indeed, the perseverance that motivated one of the driving literary forces of the Harlem Renaissance.
Don’t be afraid of this being a one-woman play of the then-I-wrote-and-then-I-did variety. This has been also conceived to be more than the simple sharing of the memories of a brilliantly gifted writer. What we have to relish are the intense feelings, attitudes, and perspectives of a passionate and purposeful personality. Calloway has the advantage of Hurston’s own brittle wit to lead through the provocative writer’s experiences, including those with the many men in her life and also many failed marriages. But there is also ample consideration for the novels and other writings that bought her fame.
What makes “Letters From Zora: In Her Own Words” dramatically dynamic as well as entertaining has a great deal to with Calloway’s sublimely affecting performance under the direction of Anita Dashiell-Sparks. Though the words as spoken come directly from Hurston’s letters, they have been so expertly arranged by Gabrielle Pina that we feel as if Hurston is sharing her life in the moment among a gathering of friends.
Turbulent and fulfilling as her life was, it was not free from controversy. Hurston would find herself being wrongly charged with child molestation, an emotionally debilitating episode in her life. Neither obsessed with nor oblivious to racism and bigotry, she references her political activism, views on integration, segregation, and the social injustice that she encountered during the jazz age era.
Mostly chronological, Hurston starts off, however, with her memories of growing up in Eatonville, Florida, where within an all black community and in a difficult family situation, she first became aware of having a unique gift. An exceptional student who would both absorb and challenge the education offered at Howard University and later at Columbia University, as its first black student, she was eagerly embraced by Harlem’s “Niggerati,” as it was called by the closely knit group of writers that included Langston Hughes, Dorothy West, and Countee Cullen.
I most enjoyed Hurston’s feisty side as she invigorates her feuds with Hughes and playwright Richard Wright. It is astonishing and amusing to see Hurston’s infatuation and serious involvement with various religions that include Voodoo, the latter giving her an opportunity for some wild ritual dancing. The play is nicely enhanced with original music by Ron McCurdy.
It’s possible that some of you may, like me, recall the play she co-wrote with Hughes in 1930, “Mule Bone,” never given a professional production until the one by Lincoln Center in 1991. You may also be familiar with Hurston’s novels “Their Eyes Were Watching God” and “Moses, Man of the Mountain” and her studies “Mules and Men” and “Tell My Horse.” Calloway’s in-depth portrayal is certainly leading me first to Hurston’s autobiography “Dust Tracks on the Road.” There is also a biography “Zora Neale Hurston,” for more investigation into her extraordinary life. May I suggest that you start by seeing this terrific play?
Letters From Zora: In Her Own Words, Crossroads Theater Company, 7 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, Thursday through Saturday, 8 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday at 3 p.m., through Saturday, October 25, $35 to $55. 732-545-8100 or www.crossroadstheatrecompany.org.