January 30, 2007

A celebration of Zora Neale Hurston

Lorna Littleway: courtesy of Juneteenth Legacy Theatre Lorna Littleway portrays author Zora Neale Hurston in “The Last Dust Track.”Writer Zora Neale Hurston, who died in 1960 at age 69, was an explosive and powerful figure throughout her life. Tomorrow her personality will reverberate in the halls of the Louisville Free Public Library’s main branch as Juneteenth Legacy Theatre and the library presents “The Last Dust Track.”This one-woman show, a fictionalized account of Hurston’s last day on Earth written by the award-winning playwright and biographer Lawrence Holder, kicks off the library’s “Big Read” project, a celebration of the importance and joy of reading. It includes a community reading of Hurston’s 1935 novel, “Their Eyes Were Watching God” (see page 28 for details).In “The Last Dust Track,” Lorna Littleway, founder of JLT, portrays Hurston. She discovered Holder’s play in 2000 and has been developing it over the years. In her portrayal of Hurston, Littleway recounts the writer’s views of folklore, her torrid love affairs and the jealousy and scorn she received from certain peers.Littleway, who admires Hurston and calls her a “shero,” recently spoke to LEO while preparing for the company’s production of “Juneteenth Cotton Club Review” in New York City. She says she adores Hurston “because she went against the grain of what was accepted.”Hurston, born in 1891, was a controversial anthropologist, folklorist and novelist who often wrote in the vernacular, from a folklorist perspective. The African-American and literary establishment of the time criticized her work for caricaturing black culture. But Hurston told it like it was, and today critics praise her accurate depiction of the idiom of early and mid-20th century African-American communities.While Hurston saw other African-American writers emphasizing a more formal writing style, thereby denying the past, Hurston celebrated her heritage by collecting and preserving folktales and songs in her work. She brought Southern African-American culture to the mainstream through her novels, short stories and plays, and acted as more than just a history researcher whose studies could have been relegated to dusty library shelves.Moreover, Hurston endeavored to bridge the literary gap between works concerned solely with racial issues and the popular prose of the time, creating literature with a universal appeal. Her Harlem Renaissance peers, such as Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison, disagreed with her writing style and politics. In turn, trendy new leftist writers like Langston Hughes, who openly embraced communism and Marxism, repulsed Hurston. In some ways her position within the community paralleled that of Martin Luther King Jr., who was criticized by Malcolm X and others for his nonviolent stance.Growing up in Eatonville, Fla., the first incorporated African-American city, Hurston never encountered racism as a child. This isolation may have contributed to her idealism. Despite her commitment to her work and her unique voice, Hurston lived most of her life in poverty, and in 1960 died penniless and all but forgotten. In 1975, Alice Walker renewed interest in her work when she wrote about Hurston in Ms. magazine.To prepare for her portrayal of Hurston, Littleway visited Eatonville to get a sense of where the author was raised. Recently, Littleway spent two weeks at the Kentucky Foundation for Women’s Hopscotch House in Prospect, enabling her to immerse herself in a rural setting similar to that in “The Last Dust Track.”Tomorrow’s performance also kicks off JLT’s “Bold Journeys Tour,” which takes the production throughout the region during Black History Month. For more info, go to www.juneteenthlegacytheatre.com. Contact the writer at sdeatrick@gmail.com