Vanessa Bell Calloway as Zora Neale Hurston
By Darlene Donloe
When Vanessa Bell Calloway straps on the persona of Harlem Renaissance writer Zora Neale Hurston, in the one-woman show, Letters From Zora: In Her Own Words, currently playing at the Pasadena Playhouse through May 18, all the audience can do is hold on tight and go along for the ride.
Calloway opens the show upstage center before turning to the audience as Hurston and explaining how, through some mystical energy, she conjured herself in order to tell the audience her story. And what a story she tells.
Hurston was an African-American novelist and essayist best known for writing the 1937 novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God.
Inspired by the works of Hurston, Letters From Zora, directed by Anita Dashiell-Sparks and written by Gabrielle Denise Pina, is a provocative multimedia presentation that spins a dramatic, sometimes comical, but especially titillating yarn about Hurston’s happy, sad, successful and controversial life. Hurston’s words are accompanied by original music composed by Ron McCurdy and with archival images collected by Margie Labadie.
If her letters truly reflected Hurston’s inner thoughts and constitution the folklorist was determined to live her life on her terms. And that she did. She spoke and wrote her own truth.
Hurston’s reputation was that of a spitfire. How she earned that status is peeled away slowly. The show winds its way from Hurston’s roots in Florida to her life-changing move to Harlem where she hob-knobbed with Renaissance notables like Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes while delving into her own envious, popular and sometimes maligned and misunderstood literary work. (According to Hurston, a group of Harlem Renaissance figures, including Cullen and Hughes called themselves the Niggerati.) We learn about her many failed marriages, her white benefactor, her scandalous legal issue accusing her of molesting young boys, her views on segregation, integration and social justice, her eventual downfall and self-doubt, but most of all, her unyielding and uncompromising spirit.
Hurston was a complex and free-spirited woman whose life was every-changing, robust and fulfilling. She talks about how there is ‘much to learn from an unfinished life’ and how ‘words can transform the soul.’
Raised in one of the first all-black towns (Eatonville, Florida), Hurston was the fifth of eight children. When her father remarried, she was sent away to a boarding school in Jacksonville (Florida). Wanting more for her life, as a grown woman she masqueraded as a schoolgirl to get a free high school education from Morgan Academy and then Howard University. She also attended Barnard College at Columbia University and graduated in 1927 with a degree in anthropology.
Vanessa Bell Calloway, an eight-time NAACP Image Award nominee best known for her roles in the box office hits Coming to America and What’s Love Got to Do With It, brings it all together in a performance that can only be described as brilliant! Her voice, her style, her cadence and her delivery and her attitude, all combine to bring Hurston’s words to life.
Under Anita Dashiell-Sparks’ well-paced direction Calloway, who was in the original cast of Dreamgirls on Broadway, moves about the stage effortlessly obtaining bits of wardrobe and other props from drawers, tables and a chest to help demonstrate and bolster Hurston’s memorable story.
Some actors are born to play a specific role. Calloway, in no uncertain terms, was meant to play the role of Hurston. To her credit, she doesn’t try to mimic the formidable writer. Instead, she brings the essence of Hurston to the fore with a striking, tour de force performance.
Playwright Pina, using Hurston’s actual letters as a foundation, successfully blurred the lines between her dialogue and that of Hurston’s.
Anita Dashiell-Sparks, Vanessa Bell Calloway and Gabrielle Denise Pina
All of the elements come together to make this a smart production. Mylette Nora’s costumes are on point as is Hilda Kane’s lighting, Manuel Prieto’s scenic design and Margie Labadie’s projection design.
The Pasadena Playhouse presents the One Pearl and a Sphinx Production of Letters From Zora: In Her Own Words.
This production, which has a limited engagement, is back by popular demand at the Pasadena Playhouse where it played to appreciative audiences in 2013.
This is one of the best productions of the year!
On the DONLOE SCALE: D (don’t bother), O (oh, no), N (needs work), L (likeable), O (OK) and E (excellent), Letters From Zora: In Her Own Words gets an E (excellent).
RUNNING TIME: 90 minutes, no intermission.
Letters From Zora: In Her Own Words, Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molina Avenue, Pasadena, 4 and 8 p.m. Sat.; 2 p.m. Sun.; 8 p.m., Fri., May 16 through May 18; $40-$100; 626-356-7529, www.PasadenaPlayhouse.org.