It's not your typical dinner show: three tales by Zora Neale Hurston distilled by George C. Wolfe into one musical, Spunk!, performed by the multiculturally and spiritually focused People's Theatre in front of a crowd that is first sated by a soul-food buffet. But who needs typical, especially when the entertainment is this captivating?
A simple stage and set are centrally placed in an alley behind downtown restaurant Lua Loa, creating a makeshift supper club. Dinner noise and activity persist as the actors step into the lights. ("That's just the kind of show it is," producer/director/actor Canara Price reassures audiences.) The powerfully voiced Blues Speak Woman, played with red-dressed charisma by Mariel Jackson, hits all the notes as she sets up the agenda in song: "How do you git to the git?/ With some blues 'n' some grit/ some pain, some spit/ 'n' some SPUNK." Three musically driven stories that get to the heart follow.
The first is a grabbing tale about a rattlesnake of a husband (Benjy Westmoreland) who's ready to rid himself of his worked-to-the-bone wife (Price). The next vignette recalls a lyrical meeting between two cocky pimps Westmoreland, suited in peacock turquoise, and Barry G. White in ostentatious ochres in Harlem Renaissance-era New York. And the finale brings home a message of redemption and forgiveness when a young wife (Price) breaks the heart of her true-blue husband (Dalas L. Davis).
Original plans called for recording artist Miles Jaye to play the role of the Guitar Man, but last-minute changes put John P. Ellis in the role. It's likely that Ellis' career as a professional musician has given him the cool to carry through the rough parts. (He's described in the program as a "stroke survivor.") The rest of the cast are commanding in their portrayals and choral contributions. Together they fall into the rhythm of Hurston's enchanting African-American folk tales.
On opening weekend, the organization of the dinner portion of the show was in sore need of such synchronicity, but the fried chicken and catfish, mac 'n' cheese, greens, sweet potatoes, rice, okra and stewed tomatoes were quality dishes. Just like the performances.