Reviewed by Catherine Siggins

“Letters From Zora: In her own words” 

by Gabrielle Pina

Pasadena Playhouse, 11 May 2014

Reviewed by Catherine Siggins

Maybe it is because of my Irish upbringing that I can sit and hear a good long winding saga of someone’s life, and not start shifting in my seat. Certainly, it’s not a hard thing to do when it’s the life of one Zora Neale Hurston. I must confess my ignorance when it comes to African American authors, having only read Chester Himes, and Alice Walker, so I am delighted to have been introduced to this fascinating woman in Pasadena Playhouse’s production of “Letters From Zora”.

This one-woman multi-media show takes us from her strained family childhood, sheltered from racism in the first self-governing all black town in Florida, to her tragic demise. In between is a true artists life, creativity and survival, friends and foes, triumphs and tragedy, she wore many hats- BA graduate from Barnard, published novelist, anthropologist studying African folklore across the States, Jamaica, Haiti, Central America, essayist, playwright, a founding member of the Harlem Renaissance, story consultant at Paramount Pictures, Guggenheim Fellow. So she could finish her high school diploma, a 26-year-old Zora passed herself off as 16-years-old, and went back to school. All this she accomplished from the humble start of working as a manicurist and theatrical dresser.
Throughout her career, she encountered much more harsh treatment by the mere fact of being a woman, who according to her male critics, dared to write just as an artist, unfettered by social and racial expectations, in a time when black woman were expected to be neither scholars or free-spirited writers. Zora was determined to write whatever the hell she wanted, and chose simply to write honestly about her experience as a woman, within the African American culture, and about the people she had known when growing up. She didn’t let political or racial issues define her work, and she was criticized by her contemporaries for perpetuating an image of African Americans as unequal to their white counterparts. Rather, she wanted to define African American society by their own culture and standards, outside of white social expectations. This is a philosophy the social activist Grace Lee Boggs would share years later.

Towards the end of her life, despite still being published, she had to work as a housemaid, librarian and substitute teacher. She died penniless and unmourned.
This production, directed by Anita Dashiell-Spark, flies by in 90 minutes. Archival images of Zora, her contemporaries, her friends and the cities she lived in appear on the screen that hangs in back of the simple set. An original period score, by Dr. Ron McCurdy, roots the action without ever overshadowing Ms. Calloway’s performance. Playwright Gabrielle Denise Pina succeeds in dramatizing Hurston’s life, drawing on her letters, works, and recordings that she made in her anthropological work, capturing her verbal agility and vernacular.

As Zora, Vanessa Bell Calloway gives an utterly convincing layered performance, which she plays with great spirit, charm, unwavering stamina and rapid fire delivery; singing, dancing, preaching from stage in full Baptist flow. She uses her voice like the best jazz musicians, to add texture, imagery, sensuality, and heat to her stories. All the time she addresses the audience like an old friend, drawing you in. With this level of energy, she could even afford to slow down her delivery at times.
This play comes as a wake up call for me to learn more about the rich and diverse culture of these United States. If you have any similar desire, this production was a good place to start.

Tickets available at www.plays411.com $25 off use code ZORA25


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