Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia, is known for its productions of musicals, and right now it's showcasing two works that use music in very different ways. Spunk, a sleek and stylized work that uses the spirit of the blues to retell three stories by anthropologist and Harlem Renaissance author Zora Neale Hurston, is currently in the smaller ARK Theatre, joining the elegant Grand Hotel in the MAX Theatre.
Director Timothy Douglas has brought together six performersa guitar player and singer (Jonathan Mosley-Perry), a blues singer who also acts (Iyona Blake), and four actors (KenYatta Rogers, Marty Austin Lamar, Drew Drake, and Ines Nassara)to recount Hurston's tales through her own words, "in the key of the blues." George C. Wolfe, the original director, adapted the stories in a story-theater style where some actors narrate while others act out the scene.
The program notes that Hurston's use of African-American dialect in her works caused some of her peers, such as Richard Wright, to say she was making fun of or trivializing her characters. That isn't a problem when the words are spoken aloud with the empathy and sheer presence of these performers, anchored by Mosley-Perry's soulful guitar and deep voice (music by Chic Street Man) and Blake's sheer attitude and the way she inhabits the lyrics she sings. Dane Figueroa Edidi has created the stylish choreography.
The stories are "Sweat," about a hardworking wife (Nassara), her vicious husband (Rogers), and how what goes around sometimes comes around; "Story in Harlem Slang," as two zoot-suited players (Lamar, Rogers) pursue a woman (Nassara), and Drake interprets their lingo; and "The Gilded Six-Bits," which brings a young couple (Drake, Nassara) together with a flamboyant entrepreneur (Rogers).
Nassara impresses in all her roles, while Rogers ably conveys both menace and flash. Drake shines as the husband with goals for the future in the third tale and Lamar is most notable as the supremely confident Jelly in "Story in Harlem Slang."
The audience surrounds Luciana Stecconi's non-realistic set, which consists mostly of a central platform bordered by stacked planks and more wood boards on the walls behind the audience, with atmosphere-creating lighting by Sherrice Mojgani and Ryan Hickey's sound design. Kendra Rai's costume design encompasses both the finery of 1940s Harlem and the down-home clothes of African Americans in small-town Florida.