Great performance accounts for “Zora”‘s triumphant run

By: Marlynne Boyer

By charming her audience with storytelling and sassy struts, Carey Hart gives a spirited performance as the late African-American female writer Zora Neale Hurston in the play “Zora” at the Mary Ann Wolfe Theater.

“Zora,” written by Laurence Holder and directed by Jerry Maple, Jr. from the M Ensemble Company, attempts to project the image of a proud, independent, animated Zora. With vivid imagery and personality, Hart involves the audience in hearing about Hurston’s life – including her experience in the “Big-Time” Jazz Age, her relationships and racism.

The play is a two-hour soliloquy that opens up with Zora taking authority by hushing barking dogs in Scene I. As the barking dies down, the ragtime melody “Sentimental Journey” is played. It is morning in Eatonville and the birds are chirping. Zora hums softly to herself as she washes her clothes in a tin bucket. With her hair wrapped in a brown-sequined scarf and wearing a long ruffled skirt with her shirt sleeves pulled up, she tells the audience about how she got to the “big time.” She reminisces about her Harlem Renaissance days as an aspiring writer in New York City.

With gleaming eyes she looks at her audience and talks to them. She talks about her journey of success with the Gilbert & Sullivan Dramatic Troupe and her years at Howard University in Washington. The audience becomes comfortable with the position as “Zora’s friend” and continues to listen to her. She lifts her skirt up slightly above her ankles and struts across the stage. The “strut” is a classy dance that African-Americans did at parties in the 1920s. When she talks to her audience about her love life, the audience laughs and smiles coyly.

But when the subject of racism is brought up, the audience is silent and serious. Suddenly, the whole theater forgets about their moment of laughter because Zora’s stories of racial discrimination in the Roaring ’20s is no laughing matter. And so, the audience listens again as Zora says, “Mama always told me to grab the broom of anger and drive away the beast of fear.”

Zora displays all sorts of emotions. At times she is nonchalant and relaxed.

But there are moments when the memories of her past appear to bother her and cause her to be angry, like when she “sells-out” to the white man just so that her works can get published, or when her first love, Herbert, leaves for medical school. When Zora “sells-out” to white publishers, she begins to have belly-aches. These belly-aches are symbolic and intentional.

They are symbolic in that when Zora denies her African pride to conform to what is accepted by the publishers, her spirit aches. They are also intentional because Hurston had health problems and Hart wanted to give Hurston’s character more depth. There are also moments when Zora tells her audience about how her works were even criticized by African-Americans, especially by Richard Wright. These sentimental moments are all a part of Zora’s huge sentimental journey, and the audience can only sigh as they reflect upon these moments with her. “The real problem is that I was a single woman at heart,” says Zora, as she reflects upon a failed marriage and a disheartened love life.

The lighting concept of the play reflects upon Zora’s passionate moments with her lovers and upon the moments that she embraces her African heritage. The lights upon the dimmed stage turn red as she discusses African roots with the audience, and Zora becomes proud and her vivacity intensifies. When the discussion is about her lovers, the lights turn red again to symbolize love and adoration for her past male companions.

Overall, the life of Zora Neale Hurston was more than just a brief overview of her successes. Holder’s play allows people to see the personal side of Zora – the side that people do not come in contact with through a two-page report. It allows a member of the audience to see Zora as a person; not only as a Black History heroine. The work is a worthy effort and very original.