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I once heard someone refer to Emily Dickinson as “the Vincent Van Gogh of American poetry”. By this, I assume, the speaker was making a correlation between the two as having been dismissed artistically in their own lifetimes, yet become highly celebrated in the more modern era. Certainly, the increasingly reclusive Dickinson, who wrote over 1000 poems and created phrases that even those who don’t think they know her work are familiar with, was ignorable in her own time in part because her poetry didn’t follow the elements expected from a poet in that period, and partly (it must be said) because she was female.
All of which is covered in William Luce’s now-classic one-woman play “The Belle of Amherst,” currently at Sierra Madre Playhouse. There, Ferrell Marshall has taken on the story of Dickinson with a generous understanding of what her poetry has to say, and the heart of the woman behind all those now-familiar words. Directed by Todd Nielsen to balance this treasure trove of verbiage with enough action to keep the hearer engaged, the play works well to both charm and and instruct.
This has been a lifelong dream for Marshall, who has been a fan of Dickinson’s work since she was quite young. That sense of dedication shows, as Luce’s script balances a combination of emotion, story-telling, and the integration of poetry into narration, to create a solid portrait of a particular artistic soul: the good daughter of a Victorian, if loving, father whose emotions were splayed on paper in ways they could not be uttered in real life. Though physically quite different from her subject, whose self-characterizations indicate she was quite petite, Marshall has a sense of quietness in her portrayal, balancing Emily’s wit and her darkness in ways which make her works make sense and her poetry sing.
Also worthy of note is the constant reference made to others outside the house Dickinson intentionally made into a fortress, especially friends from her school years, and former neighbor Helen Hunt Jackson, who was perhaps the best known American woman writer of her day. Indeed, Jackson’s pithy commentary in her letters to Emily, as a woman making her living by writing, makes a neat balance to Dickinson’s more internal art.
As for the production itself, the set dressings – furniture, photographs, and such – evoke the era and class of this poet, placed on a set left amorphous enough to handle this show and “A Wrinkle in Time,” with which it in repertory. To this are added occasional projections which celebrate Dickinson’s love of her gardens, turning the flowers she wrote of into what feels like wallpaper. Marshall’s single costume evokes a sense of period, though lacking in some of its specifics. Still, the net result sets one in the proper atmosphere to enjoy the backstory and the written words of a woman who – according to Luce – coveted her own mysterious image a bit, and yet longed for connections she considered herself too plain to ever acquire.
In short, “The Belle of Amherst,” in the person of Marshall, is worth a look. Come ready to sit and listen, for this is a quiet tale, told without elaborate flourishes. It is, however, a telling look into the person behind such poetry as “Because I could not stop for death, he kindly stopped for me…” or “Hope is a thing with feathers…” and perhaps rediscover what poetry can do that prose cannot.
“The Belle of Amherst” plays in repertory with “A Wrinkle in Time”.
What: “The Belle of Amherst” When: through April 23, 8 p.m. Thursdays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays Where: Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd. in Sierra Madre How Much: $30 general, $27 seniors, $20 youth (13-21), $17 children 12 and under Info: (626) 355-4318 or http://www.sierramadreplayhouse.org
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 http://www.pasadenaplayhouse.org