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Spunk and the Harlem Literati, a new musical written by UCF theatre professor Belinda Boyd, dazzled me with a simple yet spectacular set and felt gritty and organic despite its broad scope. Spunk, adapted from a story originally by Zora Neale Hurston, follows a strong, passionate black man through the eyes of Hurston and other influential African-American writers.

The play begins in Harlem with a discussion between Zora Neale Hurston, who is played by Brianna Joseph; Langston Hughes, who is played by Joshua Goodridge; Wallace Thurman, who is played by Raleigh Mosely; and Countee Cullen, who is played by Jeremiah Johnson. The renowned black writers talk about their roles in the Harlem Renaissance, a 1920s literary movement defined by an explosion of poetry, fiction, music and other art from the African-American community. Hurston mentions that she has adapted her short story Spunk into a full-length stage play and begins to tell the story to the other writers.

The play then shifts to Eatonville, Florida, where its central story begins. Brianna Joseph’s bold and bubbly Zora Neale Hurston serves as the narrator for the remainder of Spunk, which is played out by a cast that doubles as Hurston’s characters and as her Harlem Renaissance colleagues.

Spunk, who is played by Maurice Mallard, arrives in Eatonville, one of America’s first self-governing all-black towns, with little more than enthusiasm and his guitar. Spunk finds his place and falls in love with Evalina, who is played by Amanda Tavarez, the wife of Jim Bishop. The rest of Eatonville watches, observes and often chimes in on Spunk’s relationship with a married woman, which forms the soul of the play’s heart-wrenching moral and personal conflict.

Spunk is not a glamorous, glitzy musical full of highly produced and rigidly choreographed numbers. In fact, much of the song and dance grows organically from the story itself. Spunk sings several songs to his own guitar accompaniment. Social events in Eatonville grow into spectacular stomping dance-offs. The male chorus joins together in several catchy upbeat work songs. A hectic voodoo ritual even explodes onto the stage at one point, which feels out of place, despite its fantastic spectacle.

UCF professor Susan Glerum’s original music is soulful, simple and an accurate reflection of the show’s setting and mood.

Spunk is visually stunning not just for its performers’ constant bursts of eclectic and authentic energy. The simple set makes the most of the space and effortlessly evokes both Harlem and Eatonville with little more than shifts in lighting and backdrop projections. The lighting, designed by Bert Scott and Vandy Wood, portrays mood, and even weather, brilliantly and dramatically.

Spunk, despite an abundance of plot twists that extend the play’s duration to about three hours with intermission, held my attention with marvelously fun musical numbers and raw, honest performances from its actors, particularly the performance from Mallard and Tavarez.

With her adaptation of Hurston’s story, Boyd manages to tell a compelling and funny story within the context of the Harlem Renaissance, when black writers and performers struggled to find their own unique voices in a culture dominated by white artists. Spunk and the Harlem Literati is a gritty, honest and touching window into the realities of life as an African-American in the early 20th century.

In Boyd’s and Hurston’s Eatonville, black society thrives in its own right, free of restriction and judgment from white Americans. The challenges the characters face, and how they confront them, delivers a compelling message about gender and race, which is relevant even today.

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Alex Storer is a contributing writer for the Central Florida Future.

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