Arena Players have the range, if not the 'Spunk,' of Hurston's tales

March 25, 1994|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Theater Critic

"The three tales we are about to perform celebrate the laughin' kind of lovin' kind of hurtin' kind of pain that comes from bein' human," says the character called Blues Speak Woman near the beginning of "Spunk," George C. Wolfe's adaptation with music of three short stories by Harlem Renaissance author Zora Neale Hurston.

Although the current production at Arena Players is uneven, it conveys each of these emotions as well as emphasizing the distinctions between them by using separate directors for each story.

The author of "Jelly's Last Jam" and "The Colored Museum," Wolfe connects Hurston's tales by adding two narrators, who occasionally take part in the stories they are telling. Blues Speak Woman is played with style and versatility by She'lia "Cookie" Lockley; Tony Williams is less flamboyant as Harmonica Man. (In Wolfe's script, this character is identified as "Guitar Man," but Williams apparently is more comfortable on harmonica.)

After a musical prologue, the narrators launch into the "hurtin' " story. "Sweat" is an account of a physically abused wife whose two-timing husband taunts her further by bringing a rattlesnake home.

Directed by D. Carter Andrew, this playlet introduces Wolfe's blend of third-person narration and present-tense action, which also occasionally utilizes the unusual device of having characters refer to themselves in the third person.

While this device has the flavor of a children's story, "Sweat" is the most brutally adult of the tales. It's also a solid enough story to compensate for weak supporting performances. In addition, although Bernadette Crawford is convincingly cowed as the grievously wronged wife, she doesn't change much, even after we're told she's a "new" woman.

Arena has revised the order of Wolfe's script so that "hurtin' " is followed by its polar opposite -- "lovin.' " The most touching of the trio of tales, "The Gilded Six-Bits," directed by Samuel H. Wilson Jr., is about a newlywed couple whose love is so strong that it eventually survives the wife's misguided fling with a big-talking ladies' man. "The great belt on the wheel of Time slipped" is the way Hurston poignantly expresses the heartbreak that occurs when the husband catches his wife with another man.

As the guilty wife, Joanie "Mickey" David (who alternates in the role with E. Gail Anderson Holness) is touchingly contrite. And as the "other" man, James A. Brown delivers an amusingly broad performance that contrasts with his portrayal of the malicious husband in "Sweat." The only off note comes from the depiction of an elderly woman as a laughable caricature.

Hurston's "laughin'," "Harlem Slang," brings the production to an upbeat ending. Under the direction of Cathy Crawford Lyles, Charles "Chucky" Johnson and Jerome Valentene Gregg have a grand time as a pair of zoot-suit-wearing, slick-speaking con men who engage in verbal one-upmanship as they attempt to separate a working girl from her hard-earned wages.

These stories are ample proof of the range of Hurston's writing. And though Arena's production does not always have enough spunk, it reflects that range and brings her rich, musical prose to life.


Where: Arena Players, 801 McCulloh St.

When: 8:30 p.m. Fridays, 7:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, matinees 3 p.m. Sundays (no performances this Sunday evening or April 1-3), through April 10

Tickets: $18

Call: (410) 728-6500


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