Spunk at CalShakes

Dave and I saw Spunk at California Shakespeare Theater Friday night. It’s terrific! Full of life and spirit and color and playful invention, lots of music, and tons of heart. The show is based on three stories by Zora Neale Hurston (an author I’ve been meaning to get to know better for several years now, but haven’t actually read yet), adapted by George C. Wolfe.

Among other things, I am extremely grateful to be able to say now that I have seen Peter Callender jiving around the stage in a vivid red-orange zoot suit, which he does in the middle piece, “Story in Harlem Slang”. Not the usual sort of role for him, but he’s terrific.

I was a bit startled at first by the earthiness of some of the language, which even includes one use of nigger, flung as part of an insult from a black man to his wife, and several instances of Zigaboo, sometimes shortened to Jig, used very casually among the characters in “Story in Harlem Slang”, all of whom are black. I wasn’t shocked — like most people I know about my age, when I was a child I was taught that nigger was the worst kind of hate speech and never to be used under any circumstances whatsoever; but I’ve had a couple decades by now to get used to hearing young people of all races using it among themselves as though it were just teasing. All the same, I found it startling to hear the words used in a play set in the 1930s. Obviously, I have to assume that they’re in the play because they’re in Ms. Hurston’s stories, and that they’re in her stories because she heard them used in this way in the Harlem culture around her. So the use of those words in Ms. Hurston’s stories kind of skewers my perception that that kind of casual use was a recent thing.

Anyway, I don’t want to make too much to make out of a few words. Overall, the language in the play is vibrant with life and color, and I’m looking forward to reading the play so I can savor it better — the second piece in particular is loaded with unusual turns of phrase that rush by, one after the other.

I thought Peter Callender was a standout as Sykes, a tyrannical (and cheating) husband. But everyone in the cast is terrific, and they all get their turns to shine. Dawn Hall makes the emotional journey of Sykes’s long-suffering wife vivid, both moving and very funny. Dawn L. Troupe sings many of the songs in the play, and beautifully. Tyee Tilghman is a hoot in the second story as a hick who comes to Harlem and becomes a suave ladies’ man. Aldo Billingslea and Omoze Idehenre give complex and endearing performances in the third story (the best of the three, it seems to me), “The Gilded Six-Bits”, as Joe and Missie May, a pair of newlyweds whose happiness is troubled by the temptations of higher living. (It’s a really beautiful piece of writing, too.)

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