You can hardly compress a life into a two-hour play. One as rich with highs and lows as that of anthropologist and author Zora Neale Hurston— her trajectory from the backwoods to the pinnacle of the Harlem Renaissance, then to slander and obscurity— doesn’t really lend itself to abbreviation. Yet American Place Theatre’s revival of Laurence Holder’s Zora Neale Hurston: A Theatrical Biography, riding on the charm of Elizabeth Van Dyke as Hurston, sidesteps these limits with sass and verve. Holder’s attitudinal script, coupled with Van Dyke’s revival-meeting performance, manages to capture a spirit something akin to Hurston’s own combination of smarts and cornpone.
Hurston could be the poster child for the controversies that wracked the writers of the Harlem Renaissance. An ambitious girl born in the Black-governed town of Eatonville, Florida, she brought with her to Harlem high society a steely confidence in the literary merit of African American folklore. At first praised, she was eventually disparaged by the mostly male writers she famously referred to as the “niggerati.” Her tenacity was unpopular among those who believed, like W.E.B. Du Bois, that the Negro was better served by Talented Tenth propaganda than earthy depictions of country life. In the face of such adversity, Hurston still produced four novels and numerous short stories. Later, she was accused of molesting a 10-year-old boy, a false charge from which her career never recovered. After a stroke, she was confined to a Florida nursing home. She died penniless in 1960.
Hurston is not Patti LaBelle, but don’t tell Van Dyke, who portrays the writer as a nearly contemporary soul sister. That Hurston and Langston Hughes would be caught dead doing a shuffle step and chanting “We are Negroes!” at an awards dinner, for example, seems Disneyfied. But just when you think that Holder has flattened Hurston’s struggle into an uplifting tale of finger-wagging spunk, he lets the facts speak for themselves. Hurston may strut around the stage, and cry out for separatism, but her character’s opportunistic streak— a search for patronage from rich whites, for example— brings her right back down to earth, where even the most politically infallible Negroes still have to eat.
The racist caricatures sued by a buppie in The Trial of One Short-Sighted Black Woman vs. Mammy Louise and Safreeta Mae make an even greater leap from ignominy to righteousness than Hurston, but a far less believable or welcome one. This extended skit concerns a lawsuit brought by a businesswoman who claims that images of the two defendants have ruined her career. The two stereotypes, child-rearing loyal matron and slave-quarter seductress, are called to the witness stand by two female lawyers, one in a suit, the other in a suit and a head wrap. After much stumbling over her lines, the one in the head wrap gets the evil buppie who has forgotten her history to drop the case, having convinced her that— Lordy!— these stereotypes aren’t real representations of women’s lives. The buppie then sees the light of negritude, and lifts her flaxen wig to reveal the Cornrows of Righteousness as everyone recites a litany of slave-ship names.
Much is made in identity politics about the power of negative media images. But, like this play, that view usually fails to take into account the low number of people— especially blacks— who blindly accept what the media shows them. Despite a few amusing moments, Marcia L. Leslie might as well have written a play telling Negroes not to trust the police.