Zora Neale Hurston: a Theatrical Biography
Posted by Constance Rodgers
Zora Neale Hurston was authentic and beautiful. Elizabeth Van Dyke as Zora Neale Hurston is authentic and beautiful. Van Dyke inhabits Hurston in all her personas. When Van Dyke tells a story, a folktale, she becomes Zora. You feel you are at the party watching and listening to Hurston become all the characters in the tale; man, woman, God, the devil. Van Dyke also shows us Zora’s vulnerability, her intelligence and her joy. Hurston certainly experienced much pain being a woman in a man’s world, but as Zora says to Langston Hughes (Joseph Lewis Edwards plays Hughes, Alain Locke, Richard Wright and Herbert), “We (Negros) are more than our pain”.
Zora Neale Hurston’s work is more than her pain. It is her brilliance and her insistence on living a meaningful life of the mind. This theatrical biography by Laurence Holder presents Zora to us in all her strength and complexities, with her unwavering commitment to herself and her ideas and beliefs about art, politics, men and women, academia, science, Negros and whites. Everyone from Franz Boas to Richard Wright, with her husband Herbert thrown in the mix, wanted Hurston to be someone else, act another way, profess a different philosophy. Hurston was not having it. We know this from her writing and her life, and this play brings that home. Zora Neale Hurston was queen of the Harlem Renaissance at a time when the world did not want powerful queens, only kings. Her authenticity and refusal to kowtow to the ideas of the reigning stars of the Harlem Renaissance (Hughes and Wright for instance), or to the politics of white America, certainly contributed to her work being marginalized until the feminism of the 1970’s.
Joseph Lewis Edwards is also authentic and beautiful as four men who impacted Zora’s life; Herbert (Zora’s first husband), Langston Hughes, Alain Locke and Richard Wright. Edwards’ performance for each of these characters is stunningly different. The nuances Edwards chooses for each man are brilliant. When the character loves Zora we see it in his body language and eyes, and hear it in his voice. When the character wants to bring Zora down we feel the venom and jealousy. Edwards as Hughes reading The Weary Blues is a stunning cry.
The chemistry between Edwards and Van Dyke is wonderful. There are moments of sheer joy between them that appear to be spontaneous, though I know they can’t be – I am watching a play, not witnessing friends or a couple interact.
The costumes (Gail Cooper-Hecht) put us in the era and are lovely yet appropriately simple for this short minimalist play.
To celebrate Zora Neale Hurston’s 125th birthday, Woodie King, Jr.’s New Federal Theatre, in association with Castillo Theatre presents “Zora Neale Hurston: a Theatrical Biography” by Laurence Holder. Directed by Woodie King, Jr. Starring: Elizabeth Van Dyke and Joseph Lewis Edwards. Set: Richard Harmon, Costumes: Gail Cooper-Hecht, Lighting: Shirley Prendergast, Sound/Projections: Bill Toles, Technical Director: Stage Manager: Bayo, Asst. Stage Manager: Rosita Timm, Dramaturg: Arminda Thomas. October 20 to November 20 at Castillo Theatre, 543 West 42nd Street. 212 941-5800 Thursdays – Saturdays 8:00PM, Saturday and Sunday, Running Time: 75 mins.