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Regional Reviews: San Francisco

A Wiz-Bang Production of Spunk

Also see Richard's review Les Misérables

Aldo Billingslea, Omoze Idehenre and
Tyee Tilghman

As the Blues Speak Woman says in this fast stepping production of Spunk, George C. Wolfe's 1990 adaptation of the stories of Zora Neale Hurston: "How do you git the git?/With some blues 'n' some grit/ some pain, some spit/ 'n' some SPUNK."

When Spunk was first staged at New York's Public Theatre in 1990, it was greeted as a kind of reawakening of the fiction of Zora Neale Hurston who wrote the 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God. The Bay Area has seen two prior productions: the Berkeley Rep production in 1991 and the Lorraine Hansbury presentation several years ago. This lively production is the first African-American presentation in California Shakespeare's 39-year history.

Hurston's haunting style and Wolfe's exceptional theatrical approach blend to create an evening of theatre that rejoices the human spirit to overcome any hardships in life. Spunk employs blues, choral narrative and dance in three stories focusing on men and women. The original productions ran more than two hours, but director Patricia McGregor has cut back the amount of music a little, making this a jubilantly solid 90 minutes with no intermission.

The show opens with "Sweat," the story of loving, hardworking Delia (Margo Hall), the badly treated wife of good for nothing Sykes (L. Peter Callender), who has a pet rattlesnake and spends all of his money on another woman (Omoze Idehenre). He brings the snake into the house as a means of driving Delia out in favor of his plump girlfriend. However, he gets his much-deserved painful punishment at the end. L. Peter Callender is mesmerizing in the role and Margo Hall gives a wholehearted performance. Omoze Idehenre is sensual playing the other woman.

The second tale is "Story in Harlem Slang" and it takes place in Harlem with two penniless, outrageously zoot-suited male pickup artists, Jelly (Tyee Tilghman) and Sweetback (Aldo Billingslea), jiving with each other in melodic Harlem street talk. They attempt to seduce a sexy working girl into picking up the tab for a night on the town and more. Their victim puts them neatly in their place. L. Peter Callender, Aldo Billingslea and Tyee Tilghman strut and preen with increasing anxiety as Harlem pimps (the term during that time meant men selling their own bodies for a few bucks). It's a very cool tale and the actors, dressed in "zoot suits with a reet pleat" are "right on." Paloma McGregor has staged the charismatic dance breaks and turns the macho posing into a hilarious pas de deux.

The final tale is called "The Gilded Six Bits," a charming story about a young husband named Joe (Aldo Billingslea) who is madly in love with his wife (Omoze Idehenre) until a smooth operator (Tyee Tilghman) spoils their paradise. This is truly a heartbreaker about the instability of love, the enticement of money, and a hard road to forgiveness. Missy falls prey to a fraud from Chicago who has arrived in town. Omoze Idehenre is wonderful as the young, pleasantly spoiled wife Missy May, while Aldo Billingslea gives a beautiful performance as the handsome, adoring, hardworking husband. Tyee Tilghman gives a solid performance as the shifty con man.

Director Patricia McGregor's use of the original 1990 music by Chic Street Man is a very relaxed affair. The production trips along in enjoyable fashion with the third scene landing with the most honesty and humanity. As the blues singer with the job of linking these tales together, golden toned, hip-twirling Dawn L. Troupe adds glamour and charm to the cool-cat guitar playing of Anthony Michael Peterson, a.k.a Tru, who is always on stage strumming and plunking intricate tunes with a perpetual smile.

Callie Floor's costumes are spot on, especially the outrageous zoot suits. Michael Locher's simple scenic design is highly effective and most effectively lit by York Kennedy.

Spunk plays through July 29th at the Bruns Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Way, Orinda. It is just off Highway 24 one mile east of the Caldecott Tunnel. For tickets call 510-548-9666 or visit

Photo: Kevin Berne

- Richard Connema

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