Spunk, Cal Shakes, Orinda, Calif.


spunk_cal_shakes_7-12
Omozé Idehenre as Missie May and Aldo Billingslea as Joe in Cal Shakes’ “Spunk”


‘Spunk’

Stories by Zora Neale Thurston
Adapted by George C. Wolfe
Music by Chic Street Man
Directed by Patricia McGregor
California Shakespeare Theater (CalShakes), Orinda, Calif.
July 4-29, 2012

There is high poetry in everyday things, and few could mine it as Harlem Renaissance writer Zora Neale Thurston. Three of her short stories, adapted for the stage by famed writer-director George C. Wolfe (“The Colored Museum”) under the title of “Spunk,” are now playing on the outdoor stage at CalShakes in Orinda, Calif. With an uncommonly talented cast and jazzy-bluesy music by Chic Street Man, expertly played by Anthony Michael Peterson (aka Tru) and sung by the ensemble with Dawn L. Troupe as a powerhouse lead singer called Blues Speak Woman, it’s a 90-minute treat that is as far away from this theater’s eponymous Shakespeare as you can get.

Or is it? The first story, “Sweat,” is like “Othello,” turned on its head, as an abusive husband (L. Peter Callender in a welcome return to the CalShakes stage) and his meek washerwoman wife (a riveting Margo Hall) go to it with the aid of a very nasty rattlesnake. Spoiler alert – this time the guy won’t win.

Thurston was not only a wonderful writer but also an early feminist, from the sound of her and the women, who come across very strong in the first two pieces, especially when set against unfeeling, boastful men. “Story in Harlem Slang” pits two pimps (in this definition, flashy guys who will sell anything, including their bodies for a meal or a zoot suit or a night on the town) against their mark, a streetwise cleaning woman who isn’t about to part with her hard-earned dollars. Tyee Tilghman and Aldo Billingslea are very funny in their respective yellow and cerise suits (Callender, as the narrator, is decked out in red — costumes by Callie Floor) as they try to out-cool each other and seduce the girl. “Two Gentlemen of Verona”? Could be.

“Story in Harlem Slang” is a kind of fun palate-cleanser between two love stories, the first, tragic, and the second, “The Gilded Six Bits,” as tender and sad as loving itself. Missie May, played by ACT stalwart Omozé Idehenre, who just gets better and better with every role she takes on, and Joe (Billingslea again) are newlyweds, madly in love and living a simple country life. Enter a city slicker (Tilghman) with an ice cream cone and a flashy gold piece on a chain, and a lot of trouble ensues. Thurston resolves it in a gentle, lovely way; this is the most moving and realistic of all the pieces.

Though not exactly a musical, there is an abundance of song and dance, and Tru and Troupe are terrific at it. The cast also sings on occasion and dances to Paloma McGregor’s choreography. The script has more than a little story-theater technique to it, with most of the cast participating, in one way or another, most of the time. Director Patricia McGregor sews it all up tightly, and the thread that runs through it is spunk. It may not be Shakespeare, but what’s in a name?

San Francisco, CA
Suzanne Weiss has been writing about the arts for the past 35 years. Formerly Arts Editor for the papers of Pioneer Press in the northern Chicago suburban area, her work also has appeared in Stagebill and Crain’s Chicago Business, among other publications. Since moving to the Bay Area she has reviewed theater, opera, dance and the occasional film for the San Mateo Times, “J” and is a regular contributor to culturevulture. She is the author of “Glencoe, Queen of Suburbs.”