Letters From Zora-– In Her Own Words: Theater Review

Chris Roman
Uneven one-woman show looks at an unsung literary hero Zora-Neale Hurston.

Shortcomings aside, "Letters From Zora-– In Her Own Words" is a well-intentioned and often informative play featuring Calloway, a vivid actor whose affection for her character is infectious.

Ostracized by Harlem Renaissance writers, chastised for supporting Jim Crow, and even worse, accused of child molestation, Zora Neale Hurston is one of the most misunderstood writers of her time. At least that’s what we’re told by Vanessa Bell Calloway in Letters From Zora – In Her Own Words, a one-woman show culled together from Hurston’s own letters.

An African-American writer, folklorist and sometime voodoo priestess, Hurston won a Guggenheim Fellowship and published four novels, along with numerous articles, between 1920 and her death in 1960.

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Strangely, her novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, regarded as her crowning achievement, barely warrants a mention in the new play. In fact there’s not much at all of Hurston, the writer, on display at the Pasadena Playhouse. Instead, first-time playwright Gabrielle Pina’s gives us what sometimes reads as a laundry list of events in the writer’s turbulent life.

Early on, Hurston mentions adopting influential black writer Alain Locke as a role model, and we learn of her ambition to join the growing ranks of African-American intellectuals, but we never learn why. We never experience the impact of her education, nor her exposure to people and places on her journey through the south while assembling the vernacular and lore that would become so central to her style. Instead, it is tossed off as a larky road trip with her buddy Langston Hughes.

A veteran of TV shows and movies, Calloway has a voluminous energy that easily fills the 686-seat Pasadena Playhouse, where a sort of parlor was laid out by production designer Manuel Prieto, with a full-length mirror, chairs and potted palms while Ronald C. McGurdy’s bluesy score plays on the soundtrack.

To provide additional context and ambiance, stills of Hurston and her letters, as well as scenes of the rural south and Harlem, flash on the screen behind the action, but seem limited in scope and number, the same items appearing over and over again.

Despite an uneven script, Calloway carries the night, sashaying through Hurston’s early academic achievements at Howard University and Barnard College, getting published for the first time, building a reputation, and reliving the excitement of Harlem amid the renaissance.

High points include her reading of poet Paul Laurence Dunbar’s thunderous jeremiad on identity, We Wear the Mask, which she presents with a perfect measure of irony and bitterness.

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Low points include poverty, old age and heartbreak, not just over her split with Hughes, but accusations of child molestation in 1948.

According to the play she was in Honduras at the time of the alleged incident and was eventually cleared of charges. But her spirit was destroyed, along with her reputation, and she fell into poverty in her waning years.

The moment is played as the third-act climax and is meant to be one of catharsis. But too many questions are left hanging to elicit the emotional reaction the author is going for. Charges were leveled at Hurston by a neighborhood woman and her ten-year-old son, but why?

The scene is emblematic of a phenomenon that stifles the entire play. Although it’s called Letters From Zora – In Her Own Words, the play could use someone else’s words, maybe a letter from Hughes, or a newspaper account of her trial, to give it greater context.

Shortcomings aside, Letters From Zora – In Her Own Words is a well-intentioned and often informative play featuring Calloway, a vivid actor whose affection for her character is infectious.

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