The first book I read of Alice Walker’s was not The Color Purple, which still surprises me because outside of a college campus, I’m devout when it comes to fiction reading. My mother, I believe, was the person who recommended Walker’s In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose (1983). In Walker’s essay “Looking for Zora,” I learned of Zora Neale Hurston, a black woman born in 1891 (or ’92 or ’92), who grew up in one of the few all-black towns in the United States. Eatonville, Florida. Incorporated: 1887.
Eatonville is the intial setting for Hurston’s They’re Eyes Were Watching God (1937), which ranks high on my list of all-time favorite books. My twenty-something sensibilities thought Hurston’s prose was magic and magical, humorous and wrenching, conjuring a blast with a resonating “thwump,” followed by waves of emotions. I was a WASP-y white girl from Connecticut who’d grown up in a county of checkerboard towns—black folk here, white folk over here; Haitians, Puerto Ricans, well you can go with the black folk; Jews, why don’t you come over here, maybe these white folks can live with you. At home, I grew up with a mom who was often uncomfortable, stifled, and restless in this environment. She went on to become a feminist, an active Democrat, and a social worker (MSW, Fordham University). My dad was a dedicated Republican at the time (thanks for your perseverance, Mom!), and the corners of his square were pretty sharp. To me, Hurston’s novel—the story, characters, imagery, language—was a world like no other. She kept me glued to the page.
In the film Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth, the author reflects on Zora:
“Her work (sic) of black people is complete, complex, undiminished human beings and that was crucial to me as a writer.”
“I loved the way Zora showed a delight in the beauty and spirit of black people. She loved her own culture. Especially the language.”
(Hurston) is a perfect book of entertainment in herself.…She was full of sidesplitting anecdotes, humorous tales, and tragicomic stories, remembered out of her life in the South as a daughter of a traveling minister of God. She could make you laugh one minute and cry the next. To many of her white friends, no doubt, she was the perfect “darkie,” in the nice meaning they give the term—that is, a naive, childlike, sweet, humorous, and highly colored Negro.…But Miss Hurston was clever, too—a student who didn’t let college give her a broad “a” and who had great scorn for all pretensions, academic or otherwise. (Langston Hughes, The Big Sea, 1940)
Opening Saturday, May 10th, and for eight days only, novelist, faculty member at USC’s Master of Professional Writing Program, and PCC English Instructor Gabrielle Pina presents her play Letters from Zora: In Her Own Words at the Pasadena Playhouse.
Through the dramatization of personal letters, Letters from Zora explores Hurston’s controversial views on integration, segregation, and social justice showcasing a life that was filled with artistic triumphs as well as abject poverty and self-doubt. (PasadenaPlayhouse.org)
Film and TV actress Vanessa Bell Calloway portrays Zora, while Anita Dashiell-Sparks directs. Original music has been composed by Ron McCurdy and archival images collected by Margie Labadie.
I am not tragically colored. There is no great sorrow dammed up in my soul, nor lurking behind my eyes. I do not mind at all. I do not belong to the sobbing school of Negrohood who hold that nature somehow has given them the lowdown dirty deal and whose feelings are all hurt about it…No, I do not weep at the world—I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife. (Zora Neale Hurston, “How It Feels to Be Colored Me,” World Tomorrow, 1928)
Letters from Zora: In Her Own Words
Saturday, May 10th-Sunday, May 18th, times vary
Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena 91101
For complete info, visit PasadenaPlayhouse.org
Or call 626.356.7529