Adapted by: George C. Wolfe
At: Congo Square at Storefront, 66 E. Randolph
Phone: (312) 742-8497; $15
Runs through: Nov. 1
A blues riff runs through Congo Square's production, winding through its 1920s ambience and punctuating its tales of heartache, misconnection, and creating substance out of bravado. Spunk was adapted by George C. Wolfe from three short stories by Zora Neale Hurston, one of our country's most undeservedly overlooked writers; Hurston had a keen eye for human nature, and it's on display here. But back to the blues, which permeate these three pieces both in a musical context and in reaction to the blows life often deals.
The show is framed by the appearance of Blues Speak Woman (a warm, affable presence delivered soulfully by Aimee K. Bryant) and Guitar Man (the quietly elegant and laid back Ron Reid). Blues Speak Woman sets up each tale and Guitar Man provides an entrée via the power of music.
The three stories include 'Sweat,' a tale of a put-upon washerwoman and the husband who abuses her; 'Story in Harlem Slang' which is a canny and comic portrait of Harlem hustlers in their zoot suits and the culture that surrounded them; and 'The Gilded Six Bits,' the story of an unfaithful wife drawn by the sparkle of gold as a release from a life of poverty. Each story is powerful in its own way; characters are drawn adroitly and uniquely. It makes you want to go out and buy some of Hurston's work, which, for many years, faded from the public eye until Alice Walker championed it and brought it back.
Cheryl Lynn Bruce's direction of the show is, for the most part, capable. The musical sequences hum and Bruce has taken a charming quartet of performers, here called 'the folk' and coaxed convincing portrayals from each of them (Monifa M. Days, Aaron Todd Douglas, Leonard House, Jr., and Andre Teamer). And yet it seemed something was missing. The show should sparkle with the icy fire of the blues, but it was oddly restrained. The way the stories were adapted is a bit off-putting—there's a lot of story telling here when it should have been story showing, which would have been a more dramatic route to take.
But the high points outweigh the lows here. For nothing more, see Spunk to get yourself introduced to the work of a great African-American writer. And if that's not enough, see Spunk for Aimee K. Bryant's ebullient Blues Speak Woman and that woman's charming smile and lilting voice.