vanessa bell calloway (in letters from zora)

Vanessa Bell Calloway channels Zora Neale Hurston in “Letters From Zora: In Her Own Words”

*From the moment she steps on the stage, and starts to slowly peel off her long black gloves, it is apparent that “Zora” is in the house. Vanessa Bell Calloway channels the literary legend, Zora Neale Hurston, in the Pasadena Playhouse production, “Letters From  Zora: In Her Own Words,” now in the final weekend of its limited return engagement.

We learn of Hurston not through a resurgence of her literary works, one only has to research to read about that,  instead, Gabrielle Denise Pina’s  production seems to want us to know Hurston’s character; her personality, the highlights from her journey that helped shape the larger-than-life being that she morphed into.

As Zora beckons us to join her in a stroll down memory lane, we hear her thoughts and the motivation behind them via the letters she types. An article of clothing, such as a red dress hanging stage right, can spark a memory that might cause her to blush. An old photo or newspaper article gently lifted from a chest at stage left, reveals a story that gives us greater insight into what it was that began to shape her confidence, even as a young girl growing up in the all-black town of Eatonville, Florida. And stills on an overhead projector show us original pictures and letters, handwritten by Hurston.

For 90-minutes without pause, we are in a mode of rapture, from which we realize we have learned that Zora Neale Hurston’s education was molded by attendance at schools including Howard and Columbia Universities (where she made history as its first black student). That she took New York by storm at one of its most exciting times for black culture (during the Harlem Renaissance) with her best friends, a group who called themselves ‘Niggerati” and included Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Dorothy West. We find out that her work was not appreciated by many critics of her own race – and that she had a huge disdain for writer Richard Wright.

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We now know that Miss Zora Neale Hurston married and divorced men like nobody’s business. That she loved learning about different religions and rituals and once, even became a voodoo priestess. Did you know that she used to measure peoples’ skulls in an attempt to debunk the myth that blacks were less intelligent than whites? And that upon learning about racism at a late stage in her life, she laughed at Jim Crow laws and in a moment of confidence-out-loud even stated, “How someone could deny themselves the pleasure of my company is beyond me!”

But it is upon learning about the molestation charge, the one that said she inappropriately touched a 10-year-old boy,  that we get to see that this highly confident, exceptionally talented, live-out-loud being, was only human. Though the charges were unfounded and eventually dropped, Hurston never recovered from this event; which left her heartbroken, emotionally and spiritually depleted and financially ruined.

Calloway’s full-bodied performance shows this as a role she was born to play. Not only do Mylette Nora’s beautifully simple costumes make you feel that you are actually looking at the “real” Zora; but Calloway’s use of voice; along with other subtle nuances, makes us believe we are actually “in the moment” with her at any given time – making 90-minutes seem more like 60.

vanessa bell callowayOf course, all of this is helped along by the perfect mood music, as demonstrated by the bluesy sounds of musical director, Ron McCurdy and warm lighting design by Hilda Kane. The plentiful artifacts on Manuel Prieto’s set made it homey and pleasing to the eye; while the constant appearance of Hurston’s handwritten letters and photos from her youth on the overhead projector served as a reminder of the play’s authenticity due to Margie Labadie’s design.

Anita Dashielle-Sparks’ more than capable direction has helped secure the probability of a long run of playwright Gabrielle Denise Pina’s impressive debut in live theatres all across the country .

Remaining performances for “Letters From Zora: In Her Own Words” at The Pasadena Playhouse are Thursday, May 15 at 8:00 p.m.; Friday, May 16 at 8:00 p.m.; Saturday, May 17 at 8:00 p.m. and Sunday, May 18 at 2:00 p.m. The theater is located at 39 S. El Molino Avenue, Pasadena, CA 91101. To purchase tickets or get more information visit the official website of Pasadena Playhouse here.