Metro Weekly

DC Theater Review: Signature’s sublime ‘Spunk’

"Spunk" magnificently winds its way through three Zora Neale Hurston short stories

Spunk — Photo: Christopher Mueller

The publication last year of Zora Neale Hurston’s Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” has helped stir a Zora pop culture revival that’s beautifully reflected in Signature Theatre’s sublime production of Spunk (★★★★).

The play, an anthology of three Hurston short stories, bears not just the Harlem Renaissance writer’s radical authorial touch, but also that of playwright George C. Wolfe (Shuffle Along, The Wild Party), an artist with a knack for synthesizing moving entertainment from disparate elements of African-American life.

In Spunk, Wolfe and composer Chic Street Man connect the three unrelated tales via Hurston’s rich prose and a strain of music — the blues — that courses through all the lives depicted from one story to the next. Sung and narrated by a knowing Blues Speak Woman (Iyona Blake) and humble Guitar Man (Jonathan Mosley-Perry), the songs and stories — “Sweat,” “Story in Harlem Slang,” and “The Gilded Six-Bits” — form a nuanced portrait of no-good brothers and long-suffering sisters, from the swingin’ streets of ’40s Harlem to the sultry backroads of Central Florida, circa 1926.

Director Timothy Douglas and the cast who enact those stories take us there, with no fuss or frou-frou, inside Luciana Stecconi’s minimal slat-wood set, suggesting the walls of what could be a church or a juke joint. The characters get involved in business both holy and hell-raising, so the show definitely sets foot in both places.

And the tight six-person ensemble sets just about every foot right in delivering the play’s moments of folksy humor, or knife-edge suspense. A standout in the sizzling sextet, Blake carries these Spunk-dified, pre-Civil Rights rhythm and blues in her wonderful voice and carriage, while KenYatta Rogers, in multiple roles, shifts smoothly from twanging villain to slanging swell with style.

Ines Nassara forgoes the Florida twang for her put-upon washerwoman Delia in “Sweat,” but she and Rogers still find something potent in that tale of female empowerment. Nassara and Drew Drake, in the third tale, “The Gilded Six-Bits,” conjure something equally powerful in their depiction of a deep love complicated by lust. And in “Story in Harlem Slang,” Drake, Rogers, and Marty Austin Lamar turn lust and trash talk into the play’s comic highlight, giving vivid life to the risk-takers and heartbreakers of Zora’s imagination.

Spunk runs through June 23 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Avenue, in Arlington. Tickets are $40 to $103. Call 703-820-9771, or visit www.sigtheatre.org.

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