“Spunk” jazzes up California Shakespeare Theater

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Tucked away in the hills of Orinda is the California Shakespeare Theater — better known as Cal Shakes. A shuttle took guests up the winding road to an outdoor area which was shaded by eucalyptus trees connected by strings of sparkling Christmas lights. Art was everywhere, from the nature-inspired sculptures to the film and media display to the bluesy guitar sounds just barely audible over the rumble of chit chat. Before entering the outdoor theater, a volunteer directed guests to a small table covered with craft supplies for noisemakers to use throughout the night of musical theater (I made a bean shaker and my friend made a kazoo out of Popsicle sticks and rubber bands). Next we grabbed fat pieces of colored sidewalk chalk to make some art of our own. A display set up by Oakland 8th graders read “My home is…,” prompting patrons to share their feelings on home and community.

The night’s theme was unity — the unity between Oakland and Orinda, the unity of cultures and the unity between the past and the present.  As the sun sank lower in the sky, guests were ushered into the beautiful outdoor theater. Sandy hills provided the backdrop to the stage, empty besides a man picking at a steel guitar. He introduced himself as Tru and explained that the spoken word had long been used in African-American culture to bless experiences. He taught us a call-and-response with the men providing the guttural “ugh” and the women repeating the melody (The best part was we got to use our noisemakers).

Thus began George C. Wolfe’s “Spunk” — based on the work of famed author Zora Neale Hurston and directed by Patricia McGregor. “Spunk”, performed by an all-black cast, is a play based on three of Hurston’s short stories. “Sweat” tells the story of a washerwoman (Margo Hall) who gets her revenge on an abusive husband (L.Peter Callender). Set in the American South where “heat melts civic virtue,” Hurston’s story still feels fresh despite the old fashioned language. The narration by Dawn L. Troupe blends into music by Chic Street Man, which merges into the rhythmic and poetic dialogue, creating a lulling sort of soulful hypnosis.

Next comes “Story in Harlem Slang,” a lesson in 1940s slang told through the dealings of a young, zoot-suited man who comes to New York “To seek wealth and fortune without working.”  The main character is a pimp who calls himself Jelly, “cuz jam don’t shake.” The narrator interrupts the dialogue to explain that, in “Harelemese,” the word “pimp” refers to a man who lives off women, like a male prostitute. “Story in Harlem Slang” is Hurston at her funniest and the rival pimps, Jelly (Tyee Tilghman) and Sweetback (Aldo Billinslea), brought the dialogue to life and filled the stage with jazzy personality.

The last story in the 90-minute play, “The Gilded Six Bits,” depicts the struggle of a doting young husband (Tilghman) trying to learn to love his unfaithful wife (Omozé Idehenre) again. The play ended on a heartfelt note with the couple reconciled and the full ensemble on stage singing. After the cast took their bows, a local dance historian invited the audience on stage to learn dances of the Harlem Renaissance. Around 30 theater patrons hopped up on stage to learn the Susie Q. and the Shorty George while the less outgoing members of the audience (me) watched and cheered.

“Spunk” speaks to the quality of  Hurston’s writing and the Bay Area’s vast amount of local talent. From the enchanting theater to the moving performances to the words themselves, the whole evening was delightfully pleasant and unusual.