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Larry Litt
Beate Hein Bennett



Larry Litt



Elizabeth Van Dyke as Zora Neale Hurston. Photo by Gerry Goodstein.

"Zora Neale Hurston, a Theatrical Biography"
By Laurence Holder
Directed by Woodie King Jr.
Presented by New Federal Theatre, Woodie King, Jr. Producing Director, in association with Castillo Theatre at Castillo Theater, 543 West 42nd St. NYC.
Reviewed by Larry Litt Nov. 5, 2016

I have to state that I studied Ms. Zora Neale Hurston’s Negro folklore in college. Her “Every Tongue Got To Confess” stories were intriguing and literate with a folksy tone that made them quite different than Koel Chandler Harris’ or Washington Irving’s 19th century works. I loved them all. However Hurston’s brilliantly transformed folktales were of her own background whereas the other ‘folklorists’ were and still are folk literature.
I’d often wondered why Hurston had faded away after the Harlem Renaisance evaporated under its leftist infighting. This play by Laurence Holder makes it clear.

Elizabeth Van Dyke as Zora Neale Hurston. Photo by Gerry Goodstein.

In a majestic, dynamic and anguished performance Elizabeth Van Dyke tells her story in the first person. Ms Van Dyke breathes high energy, radiant life into Ms Hurston from the moment she arrives in New York City.
Hurston was born and raised in a small Florida town where Negroes where in the majority. She’s damned proud to arrive in The Big City as a recognized, 2nd prize winning Negro writer. She meets other writers and playwrights who are creating the Harlem Renaissance. It’s the Jazz Age, the era of black music and dance breaking through to mainstream America. In song, dance and memoir this play brings that era alive as it affected the lives of Hurston and her men.

Elizabeth Van Dyke and Joseph Lewis Edwards. Photo by Gerry Goodstein.

There were plenty of men in Hurston’s life all played by the multi-talented Joseph Lewis Edwards. Mr. Edwards clearly likes these men. His interpretation of Langston Hughes is witty, sincere and also mean spirited. Hughes was Hurston’s great friend then bitter enemy. Creative differences they told the public. In reality theirs were political differences of the bitterest sort. It was the times. Artists were feeling the socialist changes from the other side of the world. One had to make choices, oftentimes pick sides for social and career reasons.
Woodie King Jr. directs a hyper emotional Ms Van Dyke in a series of flashbacks that tell us of her glorious journey from Florida to New York City’s heights of glamour. The magic of autobiographical theater took hold of me. Within minutes I was there in 1920s New York City, in Harlem’s creative atmosphere, breathing the new century's creative inspirations with Ms. Hurston.
For Hurston it was the grand dream come true followed by the nightmare that can send an artist back home to recover from all that New York City has to offer.
Don’t miss this chance to share in the comedy, drama and intensity of American literary society. I came away wanting to read her books again. I know I will.



Beate Hein Bennett

“The Stuff of My Being Is Matter”

Elizabeth Van Dyke and Joseph Lewis Edwards. Photo by Gerry Goodstein.

“Zora Neale Hurston: A Theatrical Biography” by Laurence Holder
New Federal Theatre in Association with Castillo Theatre
October 20th-November 20th, 2016
Castillo Theatre, 543 W. 42nd Street
Reviewed by Beate Hein Bennett, Nov. 17, 2016

On the occasion of the 125th birthday anniversary of Zora Neale Hurston, the eminent black ethnographer, anthropologist, and writer, New Federal Theatre revived Laurence Holder’s play. Under the direction of Woodie King, Jr. with Elizabeth Van Dyke as Zora and Joseph Lewis Edwards in multiple male roles this homage to African-American literary and cultural icons lit up the stage at Castillo Theatre, now sharing its home with NFT.

Elizabeth Van Dyke brought Zora to life with her boundless energy and an exuberant vitality that, one imagines, was at the core of Hurston’s character. Zora Neale Hurston emerged in the 1930s as one of the first Black female anthropologists researching African-American folklore, on par with Franz Boas, Ruth Benedict, and fellow student Margaret Mead. She was part of the Harlem Renaissance literary scene, befriended by Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen. The daughter of a Southern preacher and a teacher, she grew up in Eatonville, Florida, the first all Black town to be incorporated in the United States. This background provided her with an appreciation of and pride in the particular idiom and rhythms of Southern Black speech which she recreated in her novels and short stories. Holder’s play is invigorated by the same idiom albeit somewhat moderated and made intelligible for Northern ears. Elizabeth Van Dyke dances with that idiom as much as she dances with her feet—her Zora is all passion.

The play is set in a New York City bus station on Christmas Eve 1949. We first see Zora entering the stage, a tired woman carrying a suitcase, visibly lonely and perhaps even a bit disoriented in the cold lonesome station, until memories swell up and with those memories stories she has to tell. Also the first man (of the many men) in her life appears at that point, Herbert, her fellow student at Howard University, who is bowled over by her freewheeling behavior. In front of our eyes the fifty-eight year old woman reverts back to her wild twenty-something age full of song and dance. Gradually, in the course of the ninety-minute play, moments of her life’s triumphs and struggles take shape, often accentuated by the friendships, love affairs, and arguments with the men in her life—Langston Hughes, a fellow story-teller who understood her best; Alain Locke, her editor who included her stories in his anthology “The New Negro;” and Richard Wright, whose politics she could not agree with; and Herbert, who wanted to marry her provided she became his housewife, a non-option for Zora. Joseph Lewis Edwards presents all the men with grace and distinction, but, above all, also with all the necessary differentiation of personality that these historical figures require. Woodie King, Jr.’s direction kept the play moving when narration tended to stall the dramatic pace. The production presented a valuable insight into the life of Zora Neale Hurston who died in 1960, impoverished and forgotten.

In 1975 Alice Walker wrote an essay that resurrected her reputation as an African American woman who pioneered the study of Black folklore in all its richness of language and imagery, and thus helped to incorporate African American culture into American cultural consciousness. Laurence Holder’s play shows the arc of her passion with her stories, her characters, and her music. Castillo Theatre has long promoted plays that deal with African American culture as part of its mission and has thus contributed important work to New York City’s theatrical culture.



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