Despite great acting, music, ‘Spunk’ feels too academic

Posted Feb. 22, 2010, at 6:35 p.m.

To truly encounter and engage diversity, residents of northern Maine must either export themselves or import it as the American Folk Festival does each summer when it brings the vast musical heritage of the nation to the shores of the Penobscot River.

This month, Scott R.C. Levy, the producing artistic director of the Penobscot Theatre Company, has brought a troupe of New York actors and a Portland musician to the Bangor Opera House for Black History Month. Grants from state and national art organizations and city government made it possible for the black experience of the 1920s South and the Harlem Renaissance to be transported to Bangor.

The end result of this hard work and worthy effort, however, does not make for an entirely satisfying experience. There is something oddly academic about “Spunk,” the 1990 tribute to African-American anthropologist and writer Zora Neale Hurston. The production is professional, the cast excellent, the music very, very fine indeed, but on opening night it felt more like an acted-out first lecture for a class on the literature of African-American women than it did a thought-provoking evening of theater.

In honoring Hurston and her contribution to black literature, playwright George C. Wolfe chose to string together three of her stories — “Sweat,” “Story in Harlem Slang” and “The Gilded Six-Bits” — and weave music over, under, around and through them.

He has incorporated much of Hurston’s rich language and dialogue but he also retained some of her narration, which the characters “read” after saying their lines. While this illustrates what Hurston did as a young anthropologist traveling the South listening to and recording local stories and folklore, it does not illuminate the characters that peopled her fiction. It also distances the audience from what’s happening onstage rather than pulling them into it.

Director Donya K. Washington and her cast of five talented actors and a dynamite blues guitarist work mightily to overcome the awkwardness of the show’s structure, but it is a battle that can’t be won. Washington gives each story its own pace and feel. The languid oppression of “Sweat” oozes into the jittery jump and jive of “Story in Harlem” and, after intermission, “Spunk” glides into “The Gilded Six-Bits.” The director makes the material as seamless as possible and uses the Bangor Opera House stage to its greatest advantage.

The spark of “Spunk” is Chavez Ravine. As Blues Speak Woman, she ignites the stage every time she opens her mouth to sing or speak. Ravine is not just a performer, she is a presence so formidable it’s hard for theatergoers to take their eyes and ears off her to follow the other action taking place onstage.

Samuel James, known only as guitar man, is the heartbeat of “Spunk.” His solo acoustic guitar provides the soundtrack for the action onstage. His fingers seem to play the words spoken by the actors. At times, it is impossible to separate the notes James plays from the words the characters speak. He gives “Spunk” its soul. Without it, the title of the piece would provide irony rather than insight.

Angie Browne, Eric Lockley, Jonathan McCrory and Alan Tyson work together with machinelike precision. These actors vividly create multiple characters, making each one a distinct individual. Lockley and Tyson’s turns as the zoot-suited Sweet Back and Jelly are delicious.

The three women Angie Brown portrays seem to be shards of some single Everywoman shattered by men and circumstance. She illuminates each of them with decency and grace.

Somehow McCrory comes closest to the heart of Hurston. His characters precariously cling to dignity. The actor gives each of them the quiet inner strength and certitude the writer believed would allow black men and women to rise above their circumstances. McCrory is as cool onstage as Ravine is hot.

What Hurston best revealed to white readers was the river of passion she believed courses through the veins of black women. Wolfe never comes close to capturing or portraying that. Theatergoers may enjoy “Spunk,” but they will not find Zora Neale Hurston the writer or the woman there. And that is a pity, because she and her characters are well worth encountering over and over again.

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IF YOU GO

What: “Spunk: Three Tales by Zora Neale Hurston”

Adapted by George C. Wolfe

Music by Chic Street Man with additional music by Samuel James

Who: Penobscot Theatre Company

Where: Bangor Opera House, 131 Main St., Bangor

When: Thursday through March 7

Run time: 2 hours with one 15-minute intermission

Cost: $15 – $35

Info: 942-3333; www.penobscottheatre.org

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