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Review: Spunk | WaterTower Theatre


They Got Spunk

Grit, spit and a hard-won elegance propel George C. Wolfe's Spunk at WaterTower Theatre.



published Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Photo: Karen Almond/WaterTower Theatre
Calvin Roberts, a puppet and Joshua Bridgewater in George C. Wolfe's Spunk at WaterTower Theatre in Addison

Addison — Tell me a story. Sing me the blues. Weave them together in a musical drama and you have Spunk, playwright George C. Wolfe’s 1990 adaptation of three stories by Zora Neale Hurston, a Harlem Renaissance writer with one foot in the glittering city and the other in a dusty black community in the rural south. Composer Chic Street Man’s sweet, bluesy rhythms are a perfect vehicle for Hurston’s earthy images and vibrant dialogue.

In WaterTower Theatre's new production, director Akin Babatunde stitches the songs and vignettes together seamlessly to create a kind of bright intricately designed quilt, a treasured heirloom of the African American experience that speaks to all. The program notes tell us the time of the play is "Round about long ’go" and the place is "O, way down nearby." In other words, each story has at its core some bedrock truth about the joys and sufferings of men and women wherever they may be.

Photo: Karen Almond/WaterTower Theatre
Calvin Roberts and Tiffany Hobbs in George C. Wolfe's Spunk at WaterTower Theatre in Addison

Hurston's lyrical, spicy, sometimes explosive prose is made flesh by a masterful troupe of six actors who sing, swing and joyfully embody the humor, passion and spirited "spunk" of their characters.

Blues Speak Woman (a rich-voiced, exuberant, sassy and powerfully female Liz Mikel) is the front-and-center earth mother and narrator who links the tales together. She also doubles as a fully realized character when needed, stepping in as the shimmying, hip-rolling other woman in the first story and the generous, stabilizing matriarch in the third. Grabbing a leafy limb and striking a pose, Mikel is even convincing as a handy tree to hide behind. She's accompanied and aided by Guitar Man (a handsome Kevin Macintosh twanging a throbbing blues guitar), who also knows how to sweet-talk a lady when he wants to. Both are knock-out sexy in their teasing duet, "I'm Too Good-looking' for You."

In the first story, called "Sweat," a cheerfully laboring washerwoman named Delia (a straight-backed and heroically patient Tiffany D. Hobbs) has withstood for years the beating and cheating her husband Sykes (a darkly threatening Marcus M. Mauldin) dishes out. Sykes curses Delia's body, grown thin scrubbing clothes to keep a roof over his head. He slaps her around and trots out his latest bodacious babe (a laughing, boisterous Mikel) in the town. The old boys know a bad man when they see him, and their take on Sykes is both comic and prophetic. Forced into the barn loft in terror of a snake her vicious husband has brought home, the longsuffering Delia finds sudden courage—and the snake rattles to a rhythm not intended by the sadistic Sykes.

The second vignette, "Story in Harlem Slang," is a welcome comic pimp-off between two male prostitutes, struttin' their stuff and lying about their rich female customers—and the fancy meals they get for their manly efforts. Joshua Bridgewater, Calvin Roberts and Mauldin, outfitted in Michael Robinson's cartoon-colored zoot suits, bring down the house with their snappy jive talk and big dog braggin' about "drivin round in a yellow cab with a yellow woman, spendin' yellow money." Their macho preening gets put to the test when a pretty gal (a flirty Hobbs in a flirty dress; period costumes by Michael Robinson) walks by, and cuts off the come-on. Talk about wilted. A put-down like that takes the zoot right out of the zoot suit, and leaves one hungry young buck remembering his home-cooked Alabama meals with sad nostalgia.

The last story "The Gilded Six Bits" is a touching and reassuring story about the ecstasy and innocence of a young married couple in a backwoods community, so happy in each other's bodies and beings they just laugh and play tag when he gets home from work. Roberts is a glad and manly young husband, and Hobbs is the epitome of girlish expectancy as she showers up and sets the table with a checked tablecloth and a pitcher of cold buttermilk. But a snake of a different stripe enters this picture (Mauldin, sporting gold teeth and other glittering accessories) and the course of true love is tested. Hint: even your mother-in-law can be your best friend when push comes to shove—on the birthing bed and afterward.

The characters narrate parts of their stories, referring to themselves in the third person, then easily step into the action, speaking their lines in the present. It’s fascinating because in life, we sometimes have a heightened awareness of ourselves speaking or dancing or digging in the garden, as if in a story or on stage.

Jeff Schmidt's set is elegant and effective, consisting of a long elevated runway (a Harlem street, a country road) extended into the audience, and backed by a few shallow stairs for village gossips or strolling musicians to sit a spell. The actors, the words and the music cut a shine in this show that follows you right out the door, adding to the luster of the full moon on opening night.

Photo: Karen Almond/WaterTower Theatre
Kevin MacIntosh and Liz Mikel in George C. Wolfe's Spunk at WaterTower Theatre in Addison
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They Got Spunk
Grit, spit and a hard-won elegance propel George C. Wolfe's Spunk at WaterTower Theatre.
by Martha Heimberg

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