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A CurtainUp New Jersey Review
Letters From Zora: In Her Own Words

Remember that literature and art are meant to be experienced again and again over space and through time. — Zora Neal Hurston
Vanessa Bell Callaway
It was heartening to see so many of the seats filled at the Crossroads Theater at the Sunday matinee October 12. I suspect that when word-of-mouth gets around there won't be a seat left for Letters From Zora: In Her Own Words , one of the most engaging and beautifully acted plays you are likely to see this season. It's a perfect selection for this theater that has been celebrating the entire African Diaspora for the past thirty-five years.

Don't let the word "Letters" throw you off. We are captivated at the start when an attractive woman wearing a notably vintage hat with a feather and a fur-collared coat makes her entrance, nothing pretentious, just something about her look. . . we'll give that to the actor Vanessa Bell Calloway who knows what that means and to her character Zora Neal Hurston who will later say "How someone could deny themselves the pleasure of my company is beyond me."

For the next ninety minutes Calloway portrays that famed and defamed, lauded and criticized, celebrated and sued, lusty and lively literary legend in her own time. Yes, Hurston was all that as well as a noted anthropologist. So be prepared for a gripping and often humorous narrative combined with performance artistry.

A stage, screen and television actress who has earned eight NAACP Image Award nominations, Callaway is also a professional dancer. The stage that has been dressed with selected furnishings and props are all significant and used during the performance to reveal Hurston as a larger than life woman. Through Calloway, Hurston becomes as imposing as is the screen behind her upon which we see her writings and also photos of others prominent in her life.

Calloway wears a smart looking black dress with enough flair to allow her expressive body to sashay, dance and of course age as it serves her compelling story. It is a story that undeniably defines her as a legend for all time. How rewarding it must have been for the large block of students, presumably from nearby Rutgers University, whose attention appeared as rapt as was everyone's throughout the performance: one that invokes the pleasures, the pain and, indeed, the perseverance that both motivated one of the driving literary forces of the Harlem Renaissance.

Don't be afraid if this being a one-woman play of the then-I-wrote-and-then-I-did variety. This has been also conceived to be more than the simple sharing of the memories of a brilliantly gifted writer. What we have to relish are the intense feelings, attitudes and perspectives of a passionate and purposeful personality. Calloway has the advantage of Hurston's own brittle wit to lead through the provocative writer's experiences including those with the many men in her life and also many failed marriages. But there is also ample consideration for the novels and other writings that bought her fame.

What makes Letters From Zora: In Her Own Words dramatically dynamic as well as entertaining has a great deal to with Calloway's sublimely affecting performance under the direction of Anita Dashiell-Sparks. Although the words as spoken come directly from Hurston's letters, they have been so expertly arranged by Gabrielle Pina that we feel as if Hurston is sharing her life in the moment amongst a gathering of friends.

Turbulent and fulfilling as Hurston's life was, it was not free from controversy. A wrong charge of child-molestation was an emotionally debilitating episode in her life. Neither obsessed with or oblivious to racism and bigotry, she references her political activism, views on integration, segregation and the social injustice that she encountered during the jazz age era.

Mostly chronological, the play starts off with memories of growing up in Eatonville, Florida. Here, within an all black community and in a difficult family situation, Hurston first became aware of her unique gift. An exceptional student who would both absorb and challenge the education offered at Howard University and later at Columbia University, as its first black student, she was eagerly embraced by Harlem's "Niggerati," as it was called by the closely knit group of writers that included Langston Hughes, Dorothy West, Countee Cullen.

I most enjoyed Hurston's feisty side as she invigorates her feuds with Hughes and playwright Richard Wright. Also astonishing as it is amusing to see was Hurston's infatuation and serious involvement with various religions that include Voodoo. This last an opportunity for some wild ritual dancing. The play is nicely enhanced with original music by Dr. Ron McCurdy.

Some of you may, like me, be only familiar with Mule Bone the play she co-wrote with Hughes in 1930. Her writings also included novels (Their Eyes Were Watching God and Moses, Man of the Mountain), her studies "Mules and Men" and " Tell My Horse" and her autobiography Dust Tracks on the Road.. To whet your appetite for Hurston further, you might want to read Curtainup's review of a Hurston biographical play.

Letters From Zora: In Her Own Words
By Gabrielle Denise Pina
Directed by Anita Dashiell-Sparks

Cast: Vanessa Bell Calloway (Zora Neal Hurston)
Original Scenic Design: Manuel Prieto
Costume Design: Mylette Nora
Projection Design: Jumbo Arts
Production Stage Manager: John Eric Scutchins
Running Time: 1 hour 30 minutes no intermission
Crossroads Theatre Company, 7 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, NJ
(732) 545 - 8100
Tickets: $35.00 - $55.00
Performances: Thursday - Saturday at 8 pm; Saturday and Sunday at 3 pm
From 10/09/14 Opened 10/11/14 Ends 10/25
Review by Simon Saltzman based on performance 10/12/14
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