Theater: ‘Spunk’ hits high notes

Starring Avery Glymph, Angela Karol Grovey, Derric Harris, Keith Johnston, Billy Eugene Jones and Tracey Conyer Lee. Written by Zora Neale Hurston. Music by Chic Street Man. Directed by Seret Scott. Musical direction by Keith Johnston. Continues through Dec. 15 at Actors Theatre of Louisville. For more info, call 584-1205 or visit

As far as pairings go, there might be a more complementary one than author Zora Neale Hurston and director/writer George C. Wolfe, but you’d be hard-pressed to find one so natural.

    For one thing, Hurston was born in Florida, and, as every Southerner knows, it takes one to really know one. Wolfe, a Kentucky native, knows the South and the stage, which is why “Spunk,” three tales by Hurston adapted and originally directed by Wolfe, works as well as it does. The current production at Actors Theatre, directed by Seret Scott, might not always reach the same height of emotional intensity that a reading of the stories builds, but it’s an entertaining romp all the same.

    Wolfe offers two guides — Blues Speak Woman (Angela Karol Grovey) and Guitar Man (Keith Johnston, who graciously allows Grovey to take the spotlight) — who carry the audience from one tale to the next, weaving their own flirtatious subplots along the way. Grovey was last seen in Louisville in ATL’s production of “Crowns,” and I commented that, although I was sure a powerhouse voice lived inside her, it was never really unleashed. Here, her voice not only has free reign, it, coupled with a commanding physical presence, absolutely owns the stage.

    “The Folks,” the group of actors who mostly perform the short stories, are commendable for their energetic execution and their attempting the difficult navigation from dramatic to comedic story, and back again. It’s not an entirely successful mission, but that’s due more to the trickiness of translating short stories to the stage than to the actors’ abilities. I do applaud Derric Harris’ quick change from the abusive Sykes to the cocky Sweet Back.

    Harris and Avery Glymph’s choreographed posturing as Harlem wannabe pimps, along with Tracey Conyer Lee’s best turn as the sassy girl they go gaga over, make the lighthearted second piece the strongest of the trio. The quietly devastated man that Billy Eugene Jones paints in the third piece, however, made my heart ache.

    Special recognition goes to Lorraine Venberg’s spectacular costuming. From Grovey’s silvery, shimmering dazzler of a dress to the detailed zoot suits of the pimps to the homespun, sun-dried cottons of the working class, she expertly captures the individual essence of each piece.

    The real star here, of course, is Zora Neale Hurston’s lyricism. As a writer/anthropologist, she mined the fields of her Florida hometown in order to record the culture of Southern black America. Yet she didn’t stop at documentation; she added their folktales and musicality of speech to her own experiences and created vibrantly alive literature. Wolfe added water, and the words have leapt — literally — right off the page.