The nice thing about a theater adaptation is that it gets you to consider or revisit the original work, often a classic.
Zora Neale Hurston's novel Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) is certainly that and Center Stage's dramatization entitled Gleam gives the tale of Janie Crawford new life.
Ms. Hurston brought unusual credentials to her craft. Trained as an anthropologist and folklorist, the African-American
novelist, short story writer, and essayist also wrote plays about the black experience in situ. Her writing
in general and Their Eyes in particular is a distillation of field work in diverse locations, from Florida and Harlem
to Jamaica and Haiti (where she wrote the novel). In a literal sense, she was advancing the concept of cultural
studies before it became freighted with ideology - where she was often in conflict with male colleagues from the Harlem Renaissance
and beyond - that is, the use of the vernacular in dialogue and modes of storytelling employing myths. She also resorted
to a fictional technique known as "free, indirect discourse," which is a fancy way of saying that the authorial
(or narrative) voice is spread among the characters; it is not localized as an omniscient point of view. Literary
critics are forever rhapsodizing over this so-called modern device (used from Jane Austen and Henry James to Toni Morrison
and Alice Walker, who resuscitated Ms. Hurston's reputation), but really any playwright employs this, or some variant,
routinely, the actor's body language and vocal inflections emphasizing the text.
Dipping into Their Eyes, you are also struck by the poetic nature of the
language and the unusual word selection. As readers, you are conditioned by normal syntax to bolt from one word, phrase,
or paragraph to another, filling in the gaps. But here, time and again, you will be pulled up short to mull over
the preceding savory mixture - and when you do, it is a delight going down. This comes from her technique certainly,
but also from her creative sensibility.
Theatergoers for the
production of Gleam, directed by Marion McClinton, based on Bonnie Lee Moss Rattner's script, will be getting
a condensed and somewhat sanitized version of Ms. Hurston's inventive narrative. The heroine (played with flair
by Christiana Clark), a woman of means, is an outsider in an all-black town. The public voice, toned down for the play,
functions partly as a chorus, partly as a vibrant supporting cast. She has a close friend named Pheoby (an eternally
sympathetic Stephanie Berry) to whom she relates her personal saga: three marriages - the first under obligation (from
her grandmother or Nanny played by the force-of-nature Tonia M. Jackson) to Logan Killicks (an amusingly halting Thomas Jefferson
Byrd), a second time for fancy to Jody Starks (crowd favorite Axel Avin, Jr.), and lastly for love to a much younger man,
a roustabout named Tea Cake (an assured Brooks Edward Brantly), where the third time's the charm. Gleam
effectively locates the narrative voice in Pheoby and Ms. McClinton's heightened direction gives the story momentum, particularly
in the first half. When the action moves to the Everglades in the second act, some of the focus is lost; squeezing
all of the later events of Janie's life (what a life!) and omitting others, gives it a truncated and rushed feel.
Along the way, you'll get an
up-close-and-personal look at black cultural life on a farm, in a town, and then a migrant community as seen through the eyes
of a poor, single girl and a wealthy, widowed woman - the same one, though wiser. The immediacy of this bottom-up approach
to life, with aspirations and heightened characterizations, like a creation myth, has universal appeal.
David Gallo's set is a marvel in sprawling detail - operatic in scope - covering every
inch of The Pearlstone Theater's proscenium arch, with monumental lighting supplied by Michael Wangen. Delightful
costumes of ESosa along with original music and sound design by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen nicely capture the period (1903-28).
Janie will weather a number of disasters - natural
and personal - experiencing more in her forty-odd years than many of us will in several lifetimes. Race surely plays
a factor in her struggles, but not the defining one for herself or Ms. Hurston as the transmuted personal details of her history
will affirm. The essence: To have loved and lost is to have truly lived and known yourself ... and God.
And it was worth the journey, however or wherever it goes. The memory
lives on in a new way, on stage, until February 5. Catch it if you can.
cast: Erik LaRay Harvey, Celeste Jones, Gavin Lawrence, Jaime Lincoln Smith.
Applause meter: 4+ hands (out of 5). Runtime: 2:15/with intermission
Press Photo Gleam: Richard Anderson
© John F. Glass, January 24 & 29, 2012