For Penumbra Theatre, 2012 was a near-death year.
After a financial crisis that led to layoffs, cutbacks and canceled productions last year, the St. Paul playhouse has roared back to life with a production of “Spunk,” George C. Wolfe’s music-infused play that is, appropriately, about stylish survival in the face of hardships.
The just-opened production stars Twin Cities actors and singers Austene Van, Dennis Spears, Jevetta Steele and T. Mychael Rambo. All four performed in benefits last December to help Penumbra raise $340,000 to get out of a fiscal hole that threatened its existence. (The theater pulled in $359,000 from more than 1,400 donors.) Joining these veterans are newcomers Mikell Sapp and Keith Jamal Downing.
“This is a show about our legacy and our future,” said Rambo, who has worked many times with Penumbra founder Lou Bellamy. “To let Penumbra go away would’ve been like letting a family member die. You do all you can to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
Wolfe crafted “Spunk,” which premiered off-Broadway in 1990 at New York’s Public Theater, from three stories by renowned Harlem Renaissance writer, folklorist and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston. The tales — two are fables about troubled marriages, one revolves around hip tricksters in a hustling competition — are anchored in folk culture and vernacular language.
“Hurston wrote about what she called ‘the Negro farthest down’ — ordinary, self-educated, rural black folks,” said Hurston scholar Valerie Boyd, author of “Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston.” “Hurston saw the joy and the … beauty in these mundane, unremarkable lives and decided that these people’s lives and longings were worthy of literature, of chronicle, of celebration.”
The three stories in “Spunk” are set early in the 20th century during the Great Migration of African-Americans from the rural south to the urban north. The new arrivals, some of whose emblematic journeys are documented in Isabel Wilkerson’s “The Warmth of Other Suns,” often found themselves caught between their roots and the grit and glitter of urban life.
Although “Spunk” is a work of levity and lightness, it also captures the new arrivals’ struggles for prosperity amid poverty and abuse. Issues such as domestic violence and forgiveness are prominent, always anchored in the folklore that was essential to preserving African-American culture.
Folklore vs. sophistication?
“A lot of people were trying to distance themselves from folklore because they thought it made them look country, unsophisticated,” said Sarah Bellamy, the theater’s associate artistic director and author of its study guides.
One of those seeking such space from those types of characters was social realist Richard Wright, author of “Black Boy” and “Native Son.” He disapproved of Hurston for portraying characters that could be construed as stereotypes, even if Hurston, like poet Langston Hughes, captured the mother wit of ordinary black people.
Unlike Wright, who wrote for white readers of the rage and disappointment of blacks, Hurston “was interested in writing about the inner lives of black people, particularly black women, for whom Wright seemed to have little respect,” said Boyd, a professor at the University of Georgia. “And Hurston was especially concerned with exploring what black people did and thought and said and felt when white people were not looking.”
One Hurston piece that is included in “Spunk” is “Story in Harlem Slang.” It revolves around two men, Jelly and Sweet Back, who are the equivalent of male prostitutes. The narrator explains early in the story how Jelly got his name.
“His mama named him Marvel, but after a month on Lenox Avenue, he changed all that to Jelly. How come? Well, he put it in the street that when it came to filling that long-felt need, sugar-curing the ladies’ feelings, he was in a class by himself and nobody knew his name, so he had to tell ’em. ‘It must be Jelly, ’cause jam don’t shake.’ ”
Not by words alone
To put something like that onstage requires sensitivity, cultural knowledge and an appreciation of black idioms, said director and choreographer Patdro Harris, whose credits include choreographing “A Raisin in the Sun” on Broadway.
“If you look at how people from, say, the South speak, it’s the rhythm of the words that make the words pop out,” he said. “You have to play the rhythm and style. If you just look at the words, you can be fooled into thinking that it’s a type of routine and that these are caricatures, not colorful characters.”
Harris, who is based in Atlanta, had a hit production of “Ain’t Misbhavin’ ” at Penumbra in 2006. He is working with longtime collaborator Carlton Leake, who is composing new music for the Penumbra show.
“Music is how we heal,” said Rambo, who likened listening to the blues to going to the doctor. “It could be a song about terrible things, but we feel it, and recognize that we’re part of something larger.”
Harris extended the theme to the style, including zoot suits and other costumes by designer Amanda McGee.
“No matter what our situation was in America or history, black people have always had a sense of style,” he said, then invoked another Wolfe play, “The Colored Museum.” That comedy comprises vignettes that send up African-American stereotypes.
“George Wolfe wrote that God invented black people and black people invented style,” said Harris. “We might not always agree with the expression — kids wearing their pants down, that’s questionable. But still, they have a sense of style.”
“Spunk” represents the return of a theater that is itself a testament against odds.
“Folklore is the well of black culture,” said Bellamy. “Every now and then we need to go back to it to be fed.”