Stage Struck Review

Reviewing Theatre For Over 40 Years

Letters from Zora: Pasadena Playhouse briefly hosts a literary icon

For African-American artists and writers, the 20th Century was both an opening and an intense conversation concerning the nature of that very art itself. What was more important, writing about Black culture or Black oppression? Should one write for one’s fellow African-Americans, or for the larger nation? If whites held the purse strings, as they often did (and often do), what then was to be the relationship between those with the money and the writers with a far different perspective on the nation and on power?

For a woman to enter into that conversation, particularly in the first half of the century, made for even more issues. And into that maelstrom of creativity and judgmentalism walked Zora Neal Hurston – a woman, a novelist, a free spirit, and a person whose unique upbringing brought with it a different focus from the mainstream of the arts during the Harlem Renaissance and beyond. Long forgotten, Hurston was rediscovered within the past couple of decades, and now novels such as “Their Eyes Were Watching God” are part of mainstream American literary heritage.

To get a handle on what Hurston meant in her own time period, and what she thought about the attitudes of those around her, one can look at the copious letters she wrote to her friends (and occasionally to her foes). That was what Gabrielle Denise Pina used as the framework for her “Letters from Zora: In Her Own Words,” which is making a brief, if triumphal return to the Pasadena Playhouse. Starring Vanessa Bell Calloway, this one-woman show walks us through Hurston’s life in timeline fashion, but peppered with Hurston’s own commentaries on the events discussed.

Do not expect a major discussion of Hurston’s literary nuances here. This is about the author much more than the work, except as the work drove her acceptance, and her rejection, by the literary communities within which she worked. Born and raised in an all-Black community in Florida near the start of the 20th Century, she came to an understanding of prejudice late, and tended to focus on the interior life of her characters rather than the external social struggles. As a young writer she (and Langston Hughes, and others) ended up with a somewhat restrictive but monetarily substantial sponsorship by a wealthy white woman – something many in her literary crowd considered obsequious. Still, her voice has lasted, despite critical condemnation from her own. Her friends were also numerous, her husbands fleeting, and her love for writing inexhaustible.

Calloway does a remarkable job of becoming Hurston. Visually, she looks startlingly like the pictures projected above her head. Her enthusiasm echoes Hurston’s own obvious love of life, and when the blows hit hardest it is visceral not only for the performer but for the audience. The connection throughout is strong, the story not only well written but well told, and the humorous undertone – and Zora’s own feisty nature, if her letters are any reflection – avoid the maudlin even in the darkest times.

Praise also to director Anita Dashiell-Sparks for providing enough to do onstage to avoid any sense of a static lecture. Also worthy of special note are projection designer Margie Labadie, who gives real illustrations to go with the stories told, and musical director Ron McCurdy for evocative strains which often tell some of the story all by themselves.

“Letters from Zora” provides yet another chance to get to know a remarkable woman in a time when most of the literary establishment getting any notice was male, whose all-too-brief life held impressive highs and destructive lows, and a host of adventures in-between. Thank goodness Alice Walker’s major article in MS Magazine reawakened America to a literary treasure almost lost. Zora Neal Hurston would have been too interesting, and too important, to have lost track of.

What: “Letters from Zora” When: Through May 18, 8 p.m. Friday, 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday Where: Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $40 – $100 Info: (626) 356-7529 or

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