THEATER REVIEW: “Letters from Zora” @ Karamu by Mansfield Frazier

Through Sun 6/24

A masterful, mesmerizing and magnificent one-woman show starring Vanessa Bell Calloway as Zora Neale Hurston — the famed maverick writer and intellect of the Harlem Renaissance — is the first production mounted in the newly renovated Jelliffe Theatre at Karamu. And what a brava performance it is.

Letters From Zora is the result of a collaboration between three very accomplished black women of the theater. Writer Gabrielle Denise Pina researched and wrote the script, and Anita Dashiell-Sparks directs Calloway in what is destined to become a theatrical classic. The show has been in production for six years — playing in various theaters across the country — and hopefully is destined for Off-Broadway sometime in the near future. It’s certainly ready for the Big Apple since everything about Calloway’s performance (as well as the overall production) is first-rate, as tight as a drum, honed to razor sharpness.

The experienced and seasoned actor is nothing short of brilliant as she brings to life the sassy, saucy and self-assured Hurston, who could legitimately be considered America’s first black feminist. Pina’s words drop from Calloway’s tongue like sparkling jewels, and Dashiell-Sparks directing assures that the attention of the audience stays riveted on the stage as the character of Huston moves gracefully about as she transitions from a young vibrant — albeit combative — woman to a hunched-over wise elder right before your very eyes.

A prolific author as well as a Barnard College-trained anthropologist, Hurston studied and wrote about the cultures of countries like Honduras, Jamaica and Haiti, where she allegedly became a practitioner of the Vodou religion (more commonly known as voodoo). Hurston’s most celebrated book Their Eyes Were Watching God has sold over a million copies and has been translated into many languages. Her writing was extensive and voluminous; a new book by Hurston, Barracoon, the story of the last known survivor of the Transatlantic slave trade, was just published this year.

The new renovated Jelliffe Theatre is the perfect venue for Callaway (who was born and raised a few blocks from Karamu and began her career on stage there at age 14 as a dancer) to strut her stuff as the somewhat enigmatic and always independent thinking Zora, who married at least three times — with none of the unions lasting a year — and was once falsely accused of performing oral sex on an underage boy. In spite of eventually being cleared of all charges, the incident pushed her to the brink of suicide and perhaps mentally crippled her for the remainder of her life.

Hurston’s work slid into obscurity for a number of reasons, but primarily because she was a highly intelligent, outspoken black female far ahead of her time, and a politically conservative woman to boot. But Pulitzer-Prize winning writer Alice Walker literally resurrected Hurston’s body of work from the literary grave in 1973, and now a trio of accomplished black women is paying tribute to her by giving Zora Neale Hurston the accolades she so richly deserves on a grand stage. Go see it.

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