A Happy Nod to the Queen of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s

Culture Watch
tags: theater review, Zora Neal Hurston A Theatrical Biography

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at bchadwick@njcu.edu.

Zora Neale Hurston was one of the most talented African American writers in this country’s history and yet she remains pretty much unknown to all. Everybody talks about her work. All remember her. Zora’s photo is reprinted frequency and her work is cited by scholars from coast to coast.

Who was she, though?

Actress Elizabeth Van Dyke wants to shout her name from the rooftops. Van Dyke is the star of a dazzling new play about Hurston by Laurence Holder, Zora Neal Hurston: A Theatrical Biography, now running at the Castillo Theater, 543 W. 42d Street, in New York. In the drama, Van Dyke not only brings back the literary works of the writer, that included four novels and 50 short stories, essays and plays, but also unveils Hurston’s buoyant personality, sense of humor, famous friends and her desire to succeed. Along with all of that, Van Dyke unveils the great tragedies of Hurston’s life. She leaves no stone unturned in a really remarkable and highly entertaining performance.

She is joined on stage by Joseph Lewis Edwards, who plays all of the different men in her life, from boyfriends to husbands to co-writers, editors and critics. Edwards’ performance as so many characters is impressive.

Zora Neal Hurston: A Theatrical Biography, smartly directed by Woodie King Jr., is a gem of a play, a superb two person historical chestnut that sheds enormous light on the career of Hurston, the Harlem Renaissance of which she was a star, and racial prejudice throughout America in the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s (the program includes a fine historical note on the writer and the 1925-1950 era).

Stop here. When you read a title that says the play is a “theatrical biography” you get ready to take a nap, but not in this play. It is strong, full of history and, oh my, it is funny. There is a bit early on where Zora tells the story of how God showed a woman how to completely control her man. Zora plays the dainty, but crafty woman and the swaggering man, too. She is hysterical and she wins the matchup, too.

She was the Queen of the Harlem Renaissance, attending every party she could find, dressed in expensive clothes and became a fixture at Harlem night spots. Most writers hid in their rooms, but Zora made herself a real personality. She became a fixture of high African American society, a well-dressed socialite discussed constantly and a femme fatale who could write like a whirlwind.

The play does not focus on her literary and social life, though. It delves into her mercurial personality and shows her warts and all. The writer could get downright nasty, too. As an example, famed poet Langston Hughes, who was her friend for years, co-wrote a play with her. At the last minute, unknown to him, she took his name off the script and sent it in. He was angry. She stupidly sent highly critical letters of writer colleagues to magazines and they were printed. She never really understood the anger of blacks towards her throughout the 1940s.

Her relationships with men were poor. She was married twice but those relationships collapsed because she saw women as highly liberated. There would be no stay at home mom the cook and housekeeper for her, which is what her husbands wanted.

Through it all, Hurston became a venerated writer, turning out books for America’s top publishing houses and creating a stellar career as a novelist. Her best was the 1937 work Their Eyes Were Watching God. She was often the “first” black woman to do anything, including breaking the color barrier at Barnard College.

She was a highly criticized writer, though. In her books, Hurston was intent on recreating African-American life in America the way it was and not, she said, how many progressive blacks wanted to show it. She was shunned by many in the literary community. She had to “get with it,” her liberal critics said, and stop trying to say that life in segregation was acceptable just because families were close and everybody went to church on Sunday.

She was also blasted for using down home, country, guttural language in her stories. Her contemporaries said that was demeaning to African Americans and erroneously showed white racists that blacks were not on their intellectual level, or anybody’s intellectual level. Zora always defended her work and explained, again and again, that is the way some people talked in some areas of the country and she was not going to glaze over that. She was fierce; she was determined. She was also on the losing side of that argument.

She was trapped in a bizarre sex scandal in 1948. Law enforcement officials, relying on pretty thin evidence, said she sodomized on a ten year old boy (she was out of town on the day it reportedly took place). There was enormous negative publicity about that and even though no formal charges were ever brought, the incident pretty much ruined her career.

That is not the heart of the play, though. The theme of the drama is the strength and resilience of a black woman trying to succeed in a basically white literary world. And, too, it is the story of a woman struggling in a man’s world. Playwright Holder shows her as a defiant, hell raising woman who took on all comers, defeating most, in establishing a unique literary career that is well remembered today.

The play ends in 1949, 11 years before her death, when the writer, in a huff about everything, gets on a bus to go home. The playwright left her old and broken down. He should not have done so. In the mid-1970s, there was a substantial revival of interest in the work of Zora Hurston and she returned to the prominence she held in her heyday. She has retained that lustrous prominence and fame ever since.

God had very little work to do in making Zora stronger than the men, either.

PRODUCTION: The play is produced by the New Federal Theatre. Sets: Richard Harmon, Costumes: Gail Cooper-Hecht, Lighting: Shirley Pendergast, Sound: Bill Toles. The play is directed by Woodie King, Jr. It runs through November 20.

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