Review: Zora Neale Hurston -A Theatrical Biography
by Laurence Holder
Directed by Woodie King, Jr.
Venue: Castillo Theatre 543 West 42nd Street
Review by Ebele Oseye
“They seemed to be looking at the dark, but their eyes were watching God.”–Zora Neale Hurston
The New Federal Theatre and Castillo Theatre present Zora Neale Hurston, a theatrical biography by Laurence Holder starring Elizabeth Van Dyke and Joseph Lewis Edwards through November 20, 2016. Those who love Hurston’s signature novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, must see this show. Young people unfamiliar with this author, must see this show.
What an experience! The joyful exuberance and historical depth of this tribute to author and activist Zora Neale Huston magically brings her legacy to life. It is wonderful to see so much truth delivered in such fine form, allowing the audience an expanded understanding of tragedy endured and triumphs enjoyed by this author. We hear Hurston’s voice, we view events that shaped her life. The combined talents of Elizabeth Van Dyke in the title role and Joseph Lewis Edwards as Herbert, Langston Hughes, Alain Locke, and Richard Wright together with the mastery of Woodie King, Jr., director, and the theatrical biography by Laurence Holder, these four personalities, collectively provide the magnetic energies that leave us re-created.
This play is sensual, warm, compelling, and respectful. From the intimate to the cosmic, from the personal to the historical, the writer never compromises the truth. Joy dominates the performance. Elizabeth Van Dyke’s telling the story of the Three Keys, and Joseph Lewis Edwards reciting Langston Hughes’ “Weary Blues” are two examples of many which mesmerize the listener and leave a melody in the heart.
Director Woodie King, Jr. creates magic, using the space to effectively take the audience along the winding path of a complicated, demanding journey. Gospel, jazz, and blues flow through the theater mingling with conversations as the audience waits for the play to begin. The largest group attending the Sunday Matinee 23 October 2016 included five relatives who informed me that their grandfather, Anthony Newsome Johnson, was mayor of Eatonville in Florida where Zora Neale Hurston grew up. That’s a bonus: there are many in the audience with stories to tell.
The immediate setting of the play is at a bus station, in New York City, on Christmas Eve, 1949. Eleven large book covers suspended from the ceiling and two covers from Crisis magazine decorate this drab space. Titles by Zora Neale Hurston include Moses Man of the Mountain, Mules and Men, Dust Tracks on a Road, and of course Their Eyes were Watching God. Of great interest is a large block of wood and a simple high backed bench. The wood will become both “auction block” and pedestal as triumphs and betrayals are revealed. That drab space will become vibrant when the play begins.
“There is a basin in the mind where words float around on thought and thought on sound and sight. Then there is a depth of thought untouched by words, and deeper still a gulf of formless feelings untouched by thought. Nanny entered this infinity of conscious pain again on her old knees.” Zora Neale Hurston says in Their Eyes Were Watching God. This philosophical tone in combination with the high energies of the Harlem Renaissance is beautifully captured by writer Laurence Holder and effectively delivered by Elizabeth Van Dyke and Joseph Lewis Edwards. Those who write and teach will be inspired by the script. Those who simply want to be renewed will enjoy this play. At this time of global warming with its deadly hurricanes and social unrest, the life and works of Zora Neale Hurston are poignantly relevant. There is so much to learn from this amazing production. This is a call to come and see.