Spectrum Theatre Company's Spunk

This Austin company weaves three classic tales by Zora Neale Hurston into a spirited service full of sass and grit


(l-r) Robert King Jr., Marc Pouhé, and Patrick Gathron in "Story in Harlem Slang" from Spunk

In Spectrum Theatre Company's Spunk, the eyes have it. Carla Nickerson's eyes flash it when the washerwoman she plays finally stands up to her cruel and domineering husband, played by Marc Pouhé. Pouhé's eyes gleam with it when his big-bellied Otis D. Slemmons boasts through his gold-capped teeth about all his riches. Crystal Bird-Caviel's eyes sparkle with it when she, as the playful bride Missie May, rifles through the pockets of her husband Joe, determined to find the candy kisses he brings home to her every Saturday. As zoot-suited gigolos Jelly and Sweet Back, Robert King Jr. and Patrick Gathron make their eyes flare with it as they face off in a smack-talk showdown on a Harlem avenue. And when those jokers try to woo a free meal out of a woman passing by, you'd better believe Rebekka P. Bryant's eyes blaze with it as she quickly shuts them down.

The "it" I mean is the quality that gives the show its title: spunk, that singular fusion of spirit and grit, seasoned with sass and steel, that sparks a lackluster soul to vibrant life. In adapting for the stage three stories by the great author/folklorist Zora Neale Hurston, George C. Wolfe has filled the stage with characters animated by that force – if not all the time, then in moments when life ignites it in them. It's the nerve and fire that helps them get through the "laughin' kind of lovin' kind of hurtin' kind of pain that comes from being human," as we're told by Blues Speak Woman, one of three musical guides through the stories here. What follows – "Sweat," "Story in Harlem Slang," and "The Gilded Six Bits" – are "tales of survival told in the key of the blues," she informs us, and as that line comes from the lips of Janis Stinson in a roar mixing pain and defiance, we know she knows a thing or two about surviving and that spunk has helped her "git to the git," as she puts it.

That so much mettle and verve is evident throughout the cast here speaks to both the aliveness of the text and the company's connection to it. Wolfe's script honors Hurston's love for black vernacular, the vivid idioms and slang that reflected not only the times and places in which these turns of phrase arose but also the independence of a language that African-Americans developed in the midst of their white oppressors. The dialogue is sharp with the flavors of specific regions and periods, and the actors serve them up with clear appreciation of their distinctive tang, savoring them as they pass them from their mouths to our ears. Wolfe has also preserved much of Hurston's narration from the tales, which possesses its own striking imagery and rhythms, as is heard when she describes Joe's inability to attack the weaselly Slemmons for sleeping with his Missie May: "He had both time and chance to kill the intruder. But he was too weak to take action. He was assaulted in his weakness. Like Samson awakening after his haircut." The richness of language and depth of insight add dimension to the moment, and the way Wolfe has spread the narration among the actors gives the story's telling a communal quality – a story of us being shared among us. The performers are so skilled that they could make this work whatever the situation, but with director Marcus McQuirter orchestrating the choral storytelling, they make it move as smoothly and dramatically as a Sunday-service anthem.

Indeed, Spunk feels in some ways like a church service. There's that raise-the-roof music (with Dr. Billy Harden's piano and Saul Paul's guitar supporting Stinson's rafter-ringing voice) and the sharing of the narrative that recalls readings by various members of the congregation. And the stories themselves might almost pass for parables about several of the seven deadly sins: the anger of the abusive Sykes (who even torments his wife with a serpent!), the pride of slick Sweet Back and Jelly (who might also both be guilty of some sloth), and the lust of gold-plated Slemmons, which incites the greed of Missie May. On top of that, in every story, characters pretty much sow what they reap. But while the stories here may be read as cautionary tales from the Gospel according to Zora Neale, this is no gloomy gathering of the faithful. Thanks to Spectrum, it's infused with grit and with spit, with pain and with the blues, and mostly, with a wealth of spunk.


Spunk

Austin Playhouse at Highland Mall, 6001 Airport
www.spectrumatx.com
Through July 31
Running time: 1 hr., 30 min.
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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Spectrum Theatre Company, Marcus McQuirter, Carla Nickerson, Marc Pouhé, Janis Stinson, Billy Harden, Rebekka Bryant, Patrick Gathron, Crystal Bird-Caviel, Robert King Jr., Zora Neale Hurston, George C. Wolfe

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