‘SPUNK’ at Howard University

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As Alicia Mitchell-Mangual sings and the lights come up, I anticipate another fantastic production by the Howard University Department of Theatre Arts. The six actors and keyboardist Kayla V. Waters give it their all in their three vignettes about relationships during the Harlem Renaissance.

(l to r) Levern Hamer, Alicia Mitchell-Mangual, Colby Muhammad. Photo by Justin Knight.
(l to r) Levern Hamer, Alicia Mitchell-Mangual, Colby Muhammad. Photo by Justin Knight.

George C. Wolfe’s play, SPUNK, based on three stories by Zora Neale Hurston, has been performed in multiple venues. One constant in all of the productions, including this one directed by Professor Denise Hart, is that large parts of the stories are narrated by ensemble members not directly involved in the action at that time. The primary actors in the scene switch back and forth from being in the moment to providing third person narrative. At times it was confusing.

The first of the three stories, “Sweat,” involves a young washerwoman who is abused and betrayed by her estranged husband and ultimately triumphs over him. Colby Muhammad, as the young woman, is full of passion that is transmitted to the audience whether she is beaten down or master of her universe. Levern Hamer, as her husband, Sykes, is at his best when he is bitten, and later dies, by the snake he bought to frighten his wife.

The second piece, “Story In Harlem Slang”, is the tale of two street Lotharios trying to out-hustle each other and win the favor of – and a meal from – a domestic on her pay-day afternoon off. Joshua Pyram and Tray Capers both ooze sleaziness as the two males. Muhammad, dressed in her weekend finery, verbally slaps her pursuers down to size.

The third tale, “The Gilded Six Bits,” is a bitter-sweet story of an adoring husband’s betrayal by his wife and their eventual reconciliation. As Missy May, Muhammad tallies up another strong character. Hamer convincingly plays her husband, both when he adores her and when he feels betrayed. Pyram, the rich man, seduces Muhammad. In return, she takes a ‘gold watch and chain’ from him. The riches turn out to be nothing but gold plated metal.

Mitchell-Mangual contributes many songs, with and without interaction with guitar man, Jabari Akil Denson. When not on stage, Denson plays guitar with musical director and pianist Kayla V. Waters. The duo is strong and helps smooth the sometimes confusing first and third person narratives.

As with most theatre in the round, the simplicity of the sets designed by Michael C. Stepwony keeps the focus on the actors. Lighting Designer George Epting provides simple uniform lighting which goes dark between stories. Costume Designer Celestine Ranney-Howes effectively captures the spirit and time of each story. The plain clothes of the common man are as appropriate as the zany zoot suits worn by the Letharios and the rich man.

(l to r) Joshua Pyram, Colby Muhammad, Trey Capers. Photo by Justin Knight.
(l to r) Joshua Pyram, Colby Muhammad, Trey Capers. Photo by Justin Knight.

Kudos to the very talented and hard working ensemble, and a congratulations to Colby Muhammad who deserves special mention for her passionate portrayal of the woman in all three stories. Make a trip to Howard University to see some great performances from this passionate young cast.

Running time is one hour and 45 minutes, with one intermission.

SPUNK plays through October 12, 2014 at the Environmental Theatre Space, 2455 6th Street, NW, in Washington D.C. The schedule for productions by the Department of Theatre Arts may be found here. For tickets, call the Box Office at (202) 806 – 7700, or purchase them online.