Lou Bellamy was the perfect host — smiling, clasping hands with well-wishers, thanking the 1,400 donors who had made this evening possible. After a near-death financial experience Penumbra ,Theatre re-opened Thursday night and we were reminded of the company’s importance.
For all Bellamy’s presence, though, it felt somehow emblematic that he did not direct this new production of “Spunk.” Not that Bellamy would have chosen to direct George C. Wolfe’s adaptation of three Zora Neale Hurston stories regardless of circumstances. But as Penumbra moves into a new period, Bellamy can sit with a touch more remove and nurture the company he founded 37 years ago.
What Bellamy watched Thursday was a stylish and sure-footed staging of “Spunk,” courtesy of director/choreographer Patdro Harris. The storytelling is brisk, and Harris’s eye for movement and his ear for dialogue kept six talented actors buoyant in earthy, spirited depictions.
“These are tales of survival, told in the key of blues,” sings Jevetta Steele as she introduces the 90-minute show. And that, indeed, is Hurston’s great gift — a devotion to people struggling to find an acre of joy in the hard landscape of life.
Within a patois vernacular, Hurston conjured great imagery that at times invokes ancient mythology — such as the motif in “The Gilded Six-Bits” where “the sun rises as the hero of the day and rides across the sky.” As a husband (Keith Jamal Downing) and wife (Austene Van) muddle through crisis, Hurston reminds us that time alone is the great healer.
Wolfe largely retains Hurston’s language, with actors often proclaiming the literature’s interior thoughts (“They collapsed into a furious mass of male and female energy”).
Harris’s production matches Hurston’s honesty with a strutting exaggeration that provides some distance from the language. He does not, however, neglect the heart and humor.
In “Sweat,” Van and Downing portray a poor laundress and her lanky, fierce husband. His cruelty, almost predictably, turns on himself.
“Story in Harlem Slang” finds characters played by T. Mychael Rambo and Mikell Sapp slipping on gaudy zoot suits (Amanda McGee’s costumes throughout are nicely apt), and then frolicking through the bobtail of a late Harlem afternoon.
Throughout the show, driven by Carlton Leake’s three-piece combo, Steele and Dennis Spears interject themselves as charismatic singer/narrators.
Understand that Bellamy is not leaving Penumbra. — ever. But as the company answers the marching orders of time, it is heartening to see that the rich sense of history, character and confidence that symbolizes his legacy can continue with new blood for years to come.