(Top two photos from Google Images, and bottom photo by Gail Taylor.)
Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960) used her abilities as a writer, anthropologist, and,socialite to her advantage. And for 90-minutes on Sunday, May 18, the audience attending the Pasadena Playhouse production “Letters from Zora: In Her Own Words,” written by Gabrielle Denise Pina, directed by Anita Dashiell-Sparks, with original music by Ron McCurdy, got a rich welcome into the world of one of America’s most influential authors. Vanessa Bell Calloway’s portrayal stood up to the complexity of Hurston’s personality and left many audience members in tears as they rose to standing ovation immediately upon conclusion of this amazing monologue. (Writer, Pina was also teary-eyed as she arrived onstage with the director for curtain).
Hurston’s work as an anthropologist and ethnographer made for great theatre when she was alive, and for even greater theater, today.
So, what can we learn from the life of this author and Guggenheim Fellowship-winner? The author of the celebrated novel Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) and autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road (1942)? First, when you look at her entire career, Hurston produced a wide variety of written works. She did not let discrimination stand in her way. She battled injustices, and endured public humiliation. Sadly, her vulnerabilities intensified as she reached her elder years. Yet, partly due to her independent nature (she survived three brief marriages and the loss of Langston Hughes’ friendship), writing sustained her.
Hurston’s life was complicated. Yet the following qualities may offer a glimpse at a characterization, they are:
Singularity of focus.
The life of Zora Neale Hurston is even more relevant today in light of new knowledge regarding leading a healthy, balanced lifestyle. Something the play addresses is the paucity of female friendships in Hurston’s life, her sense of being taken advantage of, and her desire to not code with “crybabies and whiners”. Her strong individualism may have, in the end, not been enough to protect her. Yet, she lived the life of an artist. Something not done easily.