Review: ‘Spunk’ at Signature Theatre

Since 1990 when New York’s Public Theater first staged George C. Wolfe’s adaptation of three short stories by Zora Neale Hurston into the play Spunk, audiences have gleaned the creative mind of one of the most celebrated writers of the Harlem Renaissance. Feminism, capitalism, spousal abuse, and love wrapped in black vernacular speech and the blues unveil pre-Second World War southern rural and northern urban African-American life in Spunk. Most importantly, Wolfe maintains Hurston’s uncanny ability to reveal the complexity of black speech with its double entendre, signifying, and clap backs.

L-R: Drew Drake (Folk Man 3), Jonathan Mosley-Perry (Guitar Man), Iyona Blake (Blues Speak Woman) and Ines Nassara (Folk Woman) in 'Spunk' at Signature Theatre. Photo by Christopher Mueller.
L-R: Drew Drake (Folk Man 3), Jonathan Mosley-Perry (Guitar Man), Iyona Blake (Blues Speak Woman) and Ines Nassara (Folk Woman) in ‘Spunk’ at Signature Theatre. Photo by Christopher Mueller.

In the Signature Theatre’s production of Spunk, Director Timothy Douglas maintains the integrity and authenticity of Wolfe’s vision with a rapid pace, an excellent cast, and an ingenious use of space, lighting, and sound to create both interior and exterior settings with minimal props. The play’s three tales–“Sweat,” “Story in Harlem Slang,” and “The Gilded Six-Bits”– present a glimpse into Hurston’s representations of Black men and women, and the dynamics in their relationships.

The entire six-person cast opens the play by ascending into the house from multiple points of entry and converging on a riser that serves as the stage. The cast delivers the opening song “Spunk” in an energetic, almost raucous manner accompanied by Jonathan Mosely-Perry as Guitar Man. Standing out with her engaging and powerful voice, Iyona Blake as Blues Speak Woman delivers sassy singing and an excellent phrasing, and also opens the first tale, “Sweat.”

“Sweat,” Hurston’s cautionary tale of the vagaries of an abused spouse, allows Ines Nassara as Delia and KenYatta Rogers as Sykes to deliver a story that would be cringe-worthy by less capable actors, as this narrative explores adultery, physical and mental abuse, and the impact of capitalism and white supremacy on a Black man’s ability to provide for his wife.

While the adulterer Sykes is angry because his wife, Delia, takes in “white folks’ wash,” it is Delia’s income that purchased the house they live in. In his attempt to terrorize Delia by placing a caged snake in the house, ultimately Sykes becomes a victim of his own shenanigans. Hurston has an uncanny way of making abused women characters ultimately triumphant. Both Nassara and Rogers portray their characters well. Rogers’ ability to switch from menace to lover on a dime speaks volumes about the influence of his past roles in August Wilson’s plays.

Rogers also shines as Sweet Back in “Story in Harlem Slang,” where a girl (Nassara) isn’t safe unless she “screams like a white woman” to ward off two pimps trying to accost her. Nassara imitating a police siren attests to the diversity of her vocal capabilities. Dane Figueroa Eddi’s choreography in this tale allows Slang Talk Man (Drew Drake), Jelly (Marty Austin Lamar), Sweet Back (Rogers), and Girl (Nassara) to replicate the nuances of street life on a bare stage.

Marty Austin Lamar (Folk Man 2) in 'Spunk' at Signature Theatre. Photo by Christopher Mueller.
Marty Austin Lamar (Folk Man 2) in ‘Spunk’ at Signature Theatre. Photo by Christopher Mueller.

Perhaps the most poignant and final tale, “The Gilded Six-Bits,” stretches the actors’ chops as five cast members deliver a tale of love, disappointment, and reconciliation. Nassara as Missie May dazzles. Missie May only wants to obtain the gilded six-bits for her husband Joe (Drake), whom she loves, from the Man/Slemmons (Rogers). She violates her marriage, but Joe forgives her when she births their child and Joe rests assured that he is the father of the baby boy.

Sustained by singing and guitar playing throughout, Music Director Mark G. Meadows creates seamless segues from one song to the next. Sherrice Mojgani’s lighting design and Ryan Hickey’s sound design enhance the minimalist scenic design by Luciana Stecconi, and make the audience feel like they are seeing bedrooms, kitchens, the inside of a store, a store front porch, and a Harlem street. Custom Designer Kendra Rai’s use of period clothing enhances the sense of time and place–from fur wraps to zoot suits we know that we are witnessing twentieth-century Black life. The entire production is creatively and ingeniously wrought.

While there may be other productions of Spunk that make use of larger stages and more props, this production stretches the audience’s imagination much like Hurston did when she penned her tales. The vocal talent alone makes this production worth attending.

Running Time: About 1 hour and 35 minutes, with a 15-minute intermission.

Spunk plays through June 23, 2019, presented by Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington, VA 22206. For tickets, call 703-820-9771 or go online.

Music by Chic Street Man; Choreography by Dane Figueroa Edidi; Fight Choreography by Cliff Williams III