Reviewed by Steven Woodruff
Writer Gabrielle Denise Pina’s detailed one-woman play, Letters from Zora, a paean to the adventurous life of Harlem Renaissance figurehead Zora Neale Hurston, has returned to The Pasadena Playhouse. And in Vanessa Bell Calloway as the title character, Pina has found a powerful collaborator in bringing Hurston’s complex, flawed character to the stage. Part freighted race dialectic, part feminist homage, the play is briskly directed by Anita Dashiell-Sparks and layered with original music by Ron McCurdy as well as period jazz and blues recordings.
The show clocks in at an hour and a half and Calloway fills it with a blistering, hot blooded characterization of Hurston who only occasionally finds moments of introspection. It left the production with a one dimensional pace and sense of purpose. Pina has been thorough in plotting the story with a thoughtfully condensed narrative that highlights the important milestones in Hurston’s controversial life, from her childhood in an all-black Florida community, to collaborations with writer Langston Hughes, and struggles to publish and maintain her unique but divisive identity as a black writer in America. She was an artist whose core was imbued with an innate sense of resilience. Calloway finds that center with both humor and nimble acting.
The script excerpts Hurston’s works, lacing the action with traditional song and play party dance tunes. Projections of Hurston’s letters and period photography complete the one room set designs by Manuel Prieto and Hilda Kane. Performances continue through May 18. The Pasadena Playhouse is located at 39 S. El Molino Ave. in Pasadena. Tickets available at PasadenaPlayhouse.org and (626) 356-7529.