At the start of "Spunk," the character called Blues Speak Woman sings: "I git to the git/with some pain n' some spit/n' some spunk."
But as the play's title suggests, spunk is the emphasis of this anthology of three short stories by Harlem Renaissance writer Zora Neale Hurston, adapted for the stage by George C. Wolfe. (( And in Center Stage's current production, that spunk is personified by a tight ensemble of six actors under Seret Scott's direction.
Though two of the play's three stories involve adultery -- in the first case combined with spousal abuse -- a resilient spirit illuminates the evening. At least that's the approach taken by Wolfe, the current artistic director of the New York Shakespeare Festival. The writer and director has punched up the celebratory aspect of these stories in several ways.
First, Wolfe has added two characters who serve as musical narrators, linking the stories through songs as well as standard narration. On stage throughout the production, Guitar Man is played by Chic Street Man, a warm, welcoming performer who originated this role and also composed the score. He is paired with Blues Speak Woman, played by Ebony Jo-Ann, whose strong, bluesy voice raised the rafters in Center Stage's 1990 production of "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," and who sings the blues in "Spunk" with at least as much pluck as heartache. At one point, when Blues Speak Woman briefly plays the character of a midwife, Jo-Ann scat-talks elatedly to represent the expectant mother's labor pains.
Second, he infuses the show with joyous theatricality enhanced by the occasional use of masks and life-sized puppets. At Center Stage, this theatricality is reinforced by designer Neil Patel's set, which features flat, storybook-like painted curtains and old-fashioned footlights. (Patel also designed the giant soft-sculpture puppets, one of which actually dances with an actor.)
The production's ebullience seems at odds with the tone of the first and darkest of the stories, "Sweat" (inexplicably, the stories' titles are not listed in the program). Harriett D. Foy plays a laundress whose nasty, no-account husband, Sykes (Stanley Wayne Mathis), brings home a rattlesnake to torment her -- or worse. Although the other cast members -- jointly identified as "the Folk" -- eerily hiss out the name "Sykes" in imitation of a snake, Mathis' character never seems threatening, perhaps partly because he has to wage an uphill battle against that ebullient tone.
This isn't a problem in the second selection, "Story in Harlem Slang," about two zoot-suited gigolos. Lying to each other about how much money they have in their empty pockets, they nearly come to fisticuffs before being distracted by a dolled-up domestic. Mathis and Clayton LeBouef exult in these flamboyant roles, speaking a slick, rhyming Harlemese that sounds like a softer precursor of modern rap. And, as the woman they try to con, Foy's cocky, take-no-guff character is also a precursor -- in her case, of a modern, independent, career woman.
The final story, "The Gilded Six-Bits," is the most touching. LeBouef and Foy portray a happily married young couple, initially as playful as puppies. Then the wife falls for a supposed rich man, played by Glenn Turner with a grin brighter than the gold coins he displays on his apparel. All the women in these stories achieve success in one manner or another, and eventually, this one does, too, but only after learning a lesson.
Before the wife learns that lesson, Blues Speak Woman sadly informs us, "The great belt on the wheel of Time slipped." A direct quote from Hurston's text, it is a statement that also applies to this long-overlooked writer, who attended the school that later became Morgan State University. Wolfe's adaptation replaces the belt on that wheel, and Center Stage's gentle production makes it spin with song.
Where: Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 7: 30 p.m. Sundays, with matinees at 2 p.m. Sundays and most Saturdays, and 1 p.m. April 10. Through April 28
Call: (410) 332-0033
Pub Date: 3/27/96