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Zora Neale Hurston
By Ruth Gerchick
Carl Sandburg praised Zora Neale Hurston as one of the best writers of her era, the 1920s and 30s. An innovator and rebel, her writings provided the inspiration for numerous contemporary writers. One of these, Alice Walker, in 1973 unearthed her unmarked burial place and in an essay entitled "In Search of Zora" tried to resuscitate a reputation ruined by the accusation that she had sodomized a ten year old boy (The case was dismissed) and Richard Wright's opposition to the "minstrel" character she used to express her belief that integration was not the answer to the problems of Blacks. Walker felt Zora was digging deeper and more positively into the African-American culture than Wright and other Black opinion makers gave her credit for.
Now, thanks to American Place Theatre and Woody King's National Black Touring Circuit, New York theater goers (and possibly schools to which the play will travel) have an introduction to Zora via Laurence Holder's biographical play, Zora Neale Hurston.
Since Hurston is hardly a household name, such a play takes plenty of explaining to introduce her to the audience. Unfortunately the playwright saved most of his explanations for the second half of the intermissionless play, a little late to catch up with the earlier events.
As the play opens, Elizabeth Van Dyke (Zora) huddles on a bus-station bench, her hat pulled down to the mangy collar of her shabby coat, a picture of sadness as she contemplates returning to her old hometown in Florida. The scrim of darkness behind her soon brightens. Doffing her coat, Zora begins to reveal a personality as fiery as the orange scarf of her red and black dress. She is convincing even as she pronounces the overworked mantra that life is love, laughter, tears and hate. Van Dyke’s acting talent is never in doubt., nor is there anything wrong with her delivery. But while she carries off the part, she's saddled with too many desultory, lifeless lines.
Co-actor, Joseph Edward plays four literary incarnations of the men in Zora Neal Hurston's life. He enters portraying her first husband, a potential physician who, realizing she’ll never be content as a housewife and drifts out of her life. Zora's comment to this is "That’s the way it always is. Just when you meet a man, he’s gone." The remark also describes her relationships with the poet Langston Hughes, Professor Alain Locke and the already mentioned writer Richard Wright. Edward, who recently shone as the star in the American Place Theatre’s Fly, is here overburdened by a profusion of characters, all of whom are talented, interesting men but get short shrift dramatically. Edwards does best with the amusing parody of stuffed-shirt Locke who criticized Hurston for using black dialect in her writing. Langston Hughes unfortunately comes off as a cartoon chracter rather than the distinguished and original poet he was.
Despite its being packed too densely and confusingly, Zora Neale Hurston serves as an opportunity to become acquainted with a fascinating woman and writer. A few books are listed below for those who are curious to read more about her and some of her actual work.
In her monumental work on Manhattan in the 1920s, Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920s Ann Douglas chronicled many of the leading lights of the famous Harlem Rennaisance which of course includes Zora Neal Hurston and Langston Hughes. This link is to the paperback edition
Her most famous work Mules and Men is also available as a paperback