Zora Neale Hurston stories sing at Cal Shakes 

click to enlarge Good times: Omozé Idehenre and Aldo Billingslea appear in California Shakespeare Theater’s snappy “Spunk.” - COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy Photo
  • Good times: Omozé Idehenre and Aldo Billingslea appear in California Shakespeare Theater’s snappy “Spunk.”

The music is sharp and sassy. The dance numbers jump and jive.

But it’s the stories of Zora Neale Hurston that make “Spunk” come alive in the new California Shakespeare Theater production.

George C. Wolfe’s adaptation of three tales by the great Harlem Renaissance author is driven by the blues, and the pulsing, finger-popping twang of Chic Street Man’s score serves the production well.

But there’s music in the stories themselves, in every word, beat and poetic turn of phrase of Hurston’s chronicles of African-American life during the first half of the 20th century.

Stylishly directed by Patricia McGregor, and performed by a vibrant seven-member cast, each tale emerges an eminently theatrical human drama.

From the sweltering heat of small Southern towns to the slick streets of Harlem, Hurston’s tales focus on the travails of ordinary men and women. There’s horror, but humor, too, in these stories of love and violence, sorrow and braggadocio, betrayal and redemption.

The 90-minute show (performed without intermission) opens with “Sweat,” in which a poor, overworked and underloved laundress (the excellent Margo Hall) relies on the power of nature to finally break free from her abusive husband (a scary L. Peter Callender).

In the hilarious “Story in Harlem Slang,” a pair of swaggering, Zoot-suited street hustlers (the well-matched, larger-than life Aldo Billingslea and Tyee Tilghman) square off over a particularly juicy conquest.

Most affecting is the final story, “The Gilded Six Bits,” about a loving husband and wife (Billingslea and a tender Omozé Idehenre) who nearly sacrifice their marriage for a pocketful of gold.

McGregor’s production is seamless — Michael Locher’s rough-wood set, York Kennedy’s lighting and Will McCandless’ sound designs come together fluidly to suggest a variety of settings.

Callie Floor’s period costumes are top-notch. Two musicians round out the cast: Dawn L. Troupe is a silken-voiced, alluring Blues Speak Woman, and Anthony Michael Peterson (aka Tru) keeps the beat as Guitar Man.

Like “The Scottsboro Boys,” currently at the American Conservatory Theater, “Spunk” incorporates elements of American minstrel style for satirical effect. Yet Hurston’s raw narratives give the show balance. Like the blues, her stories are rooted in observation, with a depth of humanity that rings true nearly a century after they were written.

Presented by California Shakespeare Theater
Where: Bruns Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 4 p.m. Sundays; closes July 29
Tickets:  $35 to $71
Contact: (510) 548-9666, www.calshakes.org

About The Author

Georgia Rowe

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