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A Spunky Comeback

Thumbs Up for Black Theatre Guild’s ‘Spunk’

By Chikako Sassa


Sidney & Pacific Multipurpose Room

May 15-16, 8:00 p.m.

Adapted by George C. Wolfe

Music and Lyrics by Chic Street Man

The Black Theatre Guild (BTG) was back on stage after a two-year hiatus, lightly, slightly, and politely asserting their mandate to showcase culturally specific works of theater pertaining to minorities, especially African Americans, in order to enrich the MIT community at large. So they got into their zoot suits with the reet pleats and got out to skivver around and do everyone some good, Zigaboo style -- you dig?

BTG couldn’t have chosen better to celebrate their comeback than Spunk. Originally consisting of three one-acts, the play was adapted from short stories written by Zora Neale Hurston (1901-1960), an exemplary advocate of the dignity and independence of Afro-American culture. Through intimate portrayals of African American life in Hurston’s native Florida and in New York during the height of the Harlem Renaissance, “Sweat” and “Story in Harlem Slang” offer answers to the question, “What makes life worth striving for during rough times?” something we could have all related to on those two nights in mid-May treacherously close to final exams.

In “Sweat,” Delia has lived the life of a married slave for fifteen years to self-unemployed and adulterous Sykes, bound by a misguided matrimony of love on one hand and carnal desire on the other. Marital bliss lasted barely two months before Sykes began beating Delia, the savageness of which one village neighbor compares to “men dat takes a wife lak dey do a joint uh sugar-cane.” Sykes pathologically gnaws on Delia while she desperately tries to remain optimistic in the face of injustice, and fills her fearful house with suds and sweat as she launders for the pay Sykes doesn’t bring home.

What reassures Delia to keep on sweating are her “spiritual earthworks against her husband.” Her pious attendance at church, her countless “amens,” her belief that “everybody is gointer reap his sowing” one day, eventually leads her to her salvation -- a life without Sykes. The conclusion of the play does not leave us free of pity, however, when Sykes invokes the name of God but dies forgotten and unforgiven.

Jelly and Sweetback, two Harlem pimps (meaning male prostitutes), had come to Harlem from the South, seeking free dinners, shots of cheap likker, maybe room rent, and a reefer or two in exchange for professional dalliance. In reality, they sleep (alone) all afternoon to appease their un-fed stomachs, and take quick backward looks at their shoe soles to see how the leather is holding out. When the two meet on the Avenue, insults and lies are hurled both ways in a stalemate attempt to outshine one another. Humor emerges here because the insults actually reinforce Jelly’s and Sweetback’s shared state of pathetic pimphood and, more broadly, their black brotherhood: expressions like “I don’t deal in coal” (“I don’t keep company with black women”), “Free schools and dumb negroes,” “My people! My people!” (satirical expression when a black person comments on the backwardness of some members of his race), mock the self as well as the other and prevent either from taking oneself too seriously. This ability to avert misery by strategic bantering rather than aimless violence is what fuels the chaotic and creative life force behind Jelly and Sweetback.

Zora Neale Hurston weaves these tales together with delightful strands of Harlem slang, colored by a sense of warm and vital human connection. Incredible attention is afforded to the spoken rhythm of African American life, and the original short stories read almost like empirical studies in cultural anthropology -- ethnographic pictures painted with words, not pigments, that painstakingly depict the struggles blacks faced during a time when the Civil Rights Movement was stirring in the wake of Brown v. Topeka Board of Education.

George C. Wolfe, the playwright, takes Hurston’s word-paintings and sequences them into dynamic tableaus, leaving the stories open to interpretation beyond the literary medium by adding delicious movement, music, and histrionics. The music provided by Chic Street Man contributes a deeper resonance with the rhythm of African American culture -- notably the blues -- and binds the actors together with their audience with irresistible clapping of the hands.

As director, Margeaux Randolph ’04 must have encountered numerous obstacles in leading the show to its fulfillment. She had less than two months to run the entire gamut of show business from auditions to opening night. According to Lincoln Chandler G, the cast members often had to convene for four-hour rehearsals when their lives were already spinning top speed as the semester accrued academic urgency.

BTG had not put on a show since their memorable and outstanding production of Unfinished Women Cry in a No Man’s Land While a Bird Dies in A Gilded Cage in May of 2001, which made Spunk a doubly tough act to follow. In addition, their cavernous yet nondescript venue at Sidney & Pacific proved unfit for the intimacy of scale called forth in Spunk. Rows of sterile folding chairs for the house prevented an informal exchange between actors and audience and effectively killed the camaraderie.

In general, the resulting performance on opening night ran low on professional stamina as cast members appeared tentative about their presence on stage and generally seemed discouraged about the non-turnout. But the entire production team did profess an amateurish exuberance and -- in the spirit of genuine theater -- seemed elated about each other’s company and the work they have accomplished together.

Unmistakably stellar performances did highlight the evening: Afiya A. Whisby ’04 displayed remarkable breadth and agility in her facial and bodily expressions, portraying the boisterous humanity of Man Two and Sweetback to dazzling effects. The agape of Delia the washerwoman was superbly embodied by the innocent, almost complacent, earnestness of Ivana Sturdivant ’04, attesting to the fact that gentleness and patience can triumph over cold-blooded violence. The costumes were solid -- especially the zoot suits with the reet pleats on Jelly and Sweetback. And what undoubtedly brought the team together to its synergistic heights were a few strategic decisions made by Randolph and her cheerful leadership. The bottom line: the Black Theatre Guild is back to share the MIT limelight, and they’ve never been spunkier.