I confess that I didn’t know who Zora Neale Hurston was when I went to see “Letters from Zora,” but the message that Gabrielle Pina’s piece presents is clear and has the fierce blaring light of truth accompanied by the kind of sass you’d expect from a woman who didn’t let age or race stop her from being a writer. The show has a very limited engagement, ending on August 18, 2013. So get over, get tickets and get your 90-minute pep talk.
While Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) wrote about women needed “A Room of One’s Own,” her 1929 essay was from a perspective of privilege. Woolf’s family were literate and well-to-do, white and British.
Hurston (1891-1960) was born in America (Alabama), black and the fifth of eight children. She was raised in one of the first all-black towns (Eatonville, Florida) and when her father remarried, she was sent away to a boarding school in Jacksonville (Florida). Eventually, she lied about her age to get a free high school education from Morgan Academy and then went to Howard University.
By 1929, when “A Room of One’s Own” was published, Hurston had received a scholarship to Barnard College at Columbia University and graduated with a B.A. in anthropology (1927) and married her first husband. There would be other husbands along the way, but also two Guggenheim fellowships for anthropological studies on African rituals in Jamaica and voudon rituals in Haiti as well as a few stints as a maid.
Above all, she traveled and she wrote and Pina presents Hurston in her own words, words taken from her numerous letters written to various people including her once good friend Langston Hughes. Hurston, Hughes and Wallace Thurman were together in New York City during the 1920s as part of the Harlem Renaissance and called themselves the Niggerati.
Vanessa Bell Calloway, who has been nominated eight times for an NAACP Image Award and was in the original cast of “Dreamgirls” on Broadway, stars in this one-woman production and we see sepia-toned photos of the real Hurston throughout her life, projected on a screen above the stage. Calloway’s Hurston is a woman with a mature figure and confidence in her looks. When we first see her she only says, “Well, well, well” and she looks better than well in her long coat with a fur collar and long dark gloves and stylish hat with a feather flourish. Calloway’s Hurston doesn’t display weakness, fear and only a little regret. We don’t tarry into the messy mechanics of her short marriages, but focus in on the woman and what it meant to be a woman of color who wanted to write.
Anita Dashiell-Sparks directs and keeps a good flow as we follow the “mystical energy” that allowed Hurston to “conjure” herself. You have to laugh when she tells about being a manicurist and how she learned about what was happening because “certain Washington folk who thought I didn’t know how to listen” talked without reservation around her.
There is, Hurston tells us “much to learn from an unfinished life” and “words can transform the soul.” She was a woman with a strong will and “my determination to do a thing is not to be trifled with.” Hurston died impoverished but she lives on in her words. This One Pearl and a Sphinx production includes a live original music composed by Ron McCurdy. This piece was originally presented at Bovard Auditorium on the campus of the University of Southern California on March 3, 2012 by Vision and Voices: The USC Arts and Humanities Initiative.
I often hear people who say they want to write, but something keeps stopping them. They say they don’t have the time, but in reality, writers write because they must write. With the Internet and computers, we all have rooms of our own but what many do not have is the determination. “Letters from Zora” should give you all a heavy dose of determination and an admiration for a woman who lived life well despite the “literary lynching” and other hardships she face.
“Letters from Zora: In Her Own Words” continues until August 18 at the Pasadena Playhouse. Single ticket prices are $30.00 – $75.00. The Pasadena Playhouse is located at 39 South El Molino Avenue, Pasadena, CA 91101. The performance schedule is Thursday and Friday at 8:00 p.m.; Saturday at 4:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m.; and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. Tickets are available online at www.PasadenaPlayhouse.org, by calling The Pasadena Playhouse at 626-356-7529 or by visiting The Pasadena Playhouse Box Office, Tuesday – Sunday from 12:00 p.m. until 6:00 p.m. during non-performance dates. On performance dates the Box Office is open Tuesday – Saturday from 12:00 p.m. – 8:00 p.m. and 12:00 p.m. – 7:00 p.m. on Sunday. Group Sales (8 or more people) are available by calling 626-921-1161. For more information, visit www.PasadenaPlayhouse.org.