The 27th annual ZORA! Festival opens with a bang and a hoodoo curse at the UCF Main Stage this weekend as UCF Theatre professor Be Boyd launches her new play Spunk! and the Harlem Literati.
A collaborative work between Boyd and the Preserve Eatonville Community – the organizer of the annual festival celebrating the life of one of Florida’s most acclaimed black writers, Zora Neale Hurston – Spunk! and the Harlem Literati is an adapted distillation of Hurston’s very first short story, "Spunk."
Originally published in the Harlem Renaissance-era literary magazine The New Negro, Hurston’s “Spunk” tells the brief story of a love triangle between three raucous characters living in Eatonville, where the author was born and grew up.
The story was first adapted for the stage in 1989 by Tony Award-winning playwright George C. Wolfe to critical acclaim, during which Wolfe blended the original story with two other Hurston short stories, “translat[ing] them” as The New Yorker said, “into jazz and blues — giving them a powerful injection of irony and wit.”
Spunk! and the Harlem Literati skips past the Wolfe musical, however, and returns back to Hurston’s original expression for the ZORA! Festival – the organizers of which, according to Boyd, came to her asking for a production based on the short story. Boyd’s play, penned in the summer of 2015, is an elaboration of the tragic romance originally laid out by Hurston.
“This show is about love to me, about the persistence of love and the divine right to love,” said Maurice Mallard, who plays the titular character Spunk.
The add-on to the play’s title refers to Boyd’s other spin on the story. Framed by a meeting of Zora Neale Hurston – as played by UCF Theatre junior Brianna Joseph – the play soon becomes a story within a story as it is narrated by Hurston herself and includes other important figures of the Harlem Renaissance who all discuss what will appear in the first issue of The New Negro.
“I have always had a great love for all of the writers of the Harlem Renaissance, but I wanted Zora to tell the story,” Boyd said. “I was doing research on Zora Neale Hurston and stumbled across a magazine called Fire!! that included the works of the Literati. I thought it would be a fascinating way to fictionalize that piece of history as well as have her spin the tale of 'Spunk.'”
Totaling at roughly three hours long, with a 15-minute intermission, the play is a sprawling romance and a great ode to both the UCF Theatre department’s talent and to Zora Neale Hurston’s prose. One of the defining features of Hurston’s writing was her insistence on writing in the rhythms and colloquialisms of English in the Black South – a feature that one could interpret as either a stroke of brilliance or madness.
Boyd keeps those same distinctive rhythms present in her dialogue, an added challenge for her actors, but one that, if pulled off successfully, adds a layer of richness to the characters.
“It could be challenging at times, but actually, it was probably the part that made me feel most at ease about playing Zora,” Joseph said. “There is a natural speech rhythm that Zora writes with, and when I put the words into my mouth, I felt so completely connected with her.
“[Zora] was a part of a revolutionary group of writers and artists who didn't seek to find acceptance by assimilating to white standards of society,” Joseph added. “Instead, she wholeheartedly accepted who she was and saw no need to change that for anyone. That is a hard thing to do for many people of color in our society, even today.”
Spunk! and the Harlem Literati runs Jan. 21 to Jan. 28, with showtimes at 8 p.m., Monday through Saturday, and matinee performances at 2 p.m. on Sundays. Tickets are $20 for regular admission and $10 with a UCF student ID.
Chris Muscardin is a Contributing Writer for the Central Florida Future.