May 28, 2020
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Penobscot Theatre delves into African-American experience with ‘Spunk’

It was one of those incredible coincidences, how Samuel James came to play Guitar Man in Penobscot Theatre Company’s production of “Spunk,” opening in previews Wednesday, Feb. 17.

The Blues Music Award-nominated James, a Biddeford native, is known throughout the Northeast for his unique approach to acoustic blues — the music played by Robert Johnson, Son House and Charley Patton, filtered through his own contemporary outlook. His role in “Spunk” takes the form of musical accompaniment and commentary on the action during the play, which is composed of vignettes based on three Zora Neale Hurston stories.

A random encounter between PTC producing artistic director Scott Levy and North Atlantic Blues Festival organizer Paul Benjamin brought James to the Bangor Opera House stage.

“Scott was talking to Paul about ‘Spunk’ during the Tab Benoit show last fall, and Paul told him ‘There’s only one guy in the world that can play this part, and he lives in Maine,’” said James, who now lives in Portland. “That was pretty much it. I told Scott and Donya, ‘You realize I’ve never acted before, right?’ And Donya said, ‘Well, you do now.’”

Donya K. Washington, a Van Lier Directing Fellow at Second Stage Theatre in New York City, came to Bangor to direct “Spunk.” She didn’t see James’ lack of acting experience as a hindrance. What she saw was a gifted musician, who could help illuminate the beautifully told, unsentimental but deeply affecting stories played out during the show, adapted by George C. Wolfe in the late 1980s from three of Hurston’s short stories.

“[Hurston] had such a respect and love for the people she wrote about,” said Washington. “She didn’t glorify or mollycoddle them, but she told the truth. She writes with very heavy dialect, which she got a lot of criticism for in her time. You can feel her love for her people in everything she wrote, and I think this play does a really wonderful job of illustrating that.”

“Spunk” is about lots of things: friendship, marriage, the power of music, rural life versus urban life, overcoming hardships and making do with what little you have. Taken at face value, though, “Spunk” is about the African-American experience in the 1920s — from the small, entirely black town of Eatonville, Fla., that Hurston grew up in to the creative explosion that was the Harlem Renaissance. Levy made a conscious decision to choose a play for this season that spoke to that experience.

“There was a need to present theater that speaks to racial diversity,” said Levy. “My first impulse was to do ‘A Raisin in the Sun’ [the acclaimed 1959 play by Lorraine Hansberry], but that’s a much bigger show, and it really was the obvious choice. ‘Spunk’ has so much music, and in many ways is more accessible. It has a really broad appeal.”

“Spunk” is divided into three parts. The first, “Sweat,” tells the story of a woman (played by Angie Browne) in a small Southern town, trapped in an abusive marriage, and how she gets back at her husband (Eric Lockley). The second, “A Story in Harlem Slang,” is focused on two Harlem hustlers (Alan Tyson and Lockley), who con and charm their way through the city. The third, “The Gilded Six Bits,” takes place back in the South, and is about a husband (Jonathan McCrory) who must forgive his unfaithful wife (Browne).

Through it all, Guitar Man (James) and Blues Speak Woman (Chavez Ravine) comment on all the action like a Greek chorus. James plays Delta blues-influence licks, while Ravine sings and sing-speaks parts of the story.

“The music is really an integral part of the story. The blues has a story to tell,” said Ravine, who has acted extensively in New York and Chicago. “The text turns into a song, and then comes back again. It can be very profound, but it can also be just fun. Music is such an important part of the black experience. It’s an important part of everyone’s experience, really, and that’s what makes it so powerful.”

“Spunk” is one of the many works that sprung up after Hurston’s work was rediscovered in the 1970s and ’80s. Hurston wrote “Their Eyes Were Watching God” and a number of short stories and plays, conducted extensive anthropological research and was the first woman to graduate from Barnard College in New York. She was a truly remarkable woman for her time, yet she died poor and in near-complete obscurity in 1960. It wasn’t until the late 1970s, when writers like such as Alice Walker touted Hurston as a major voice in African-American letters, that she received the recognition she deserved.

“What she did would be impressive even today, but back then, as a woman? And as a black woman, no less?” said Washington. “She was so fascinated by the culture of black people. She really got under the surface of so much of what life was like in the ’20s and ’30s. She uses their words, and their ways of expressing them-selves, to tell their stories. But it’s not like an epic. It’s on a very human level. It’s a story, not the story. And it’s a great story.”

The Penobscot Theatre Company’s production of “Spunk” will be performed at 7 p.m. Feb. 17, 18, 25 and March 4; 8 p.m. Feb. 19, 26, 27, and March 5 and 6; 5 p.m. Feb. 20; 3 p.m. Feb. 21, 28 and March 7; and 4 p.m. Feb. 27 and March 6. Tickets range from $15 to $40; for more information, visit www.penobscottheatre.org or call 942-3333.


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