" I tried . . . not to pander to the folks who expect a clown and a villain in every Negro. Neither did I want to pander to those 'race' people among us who see nothing but perfection in all of us. I do not attempt to solve any problems [in my novels]. I know I cannot straighten out with a few pen-strokes what God and men took centuries to mess up. So I tried to deal with life as we actually live it-not as the sociologists imagine it."
—Zora Neale Hurston, from a letter to Fannie Hurst
This past Spring the WOW Cafè Theatre presented the premiere of the Laurence Holder’s adaptation of the Zora Neale Hurston’s legendary literary classic, “Their Eyes Were Watch God”. Hurston’s iconic novel was initially published in New York City on September 18, 1937, but it did not garner the success it deserved with harsh critics like Richard Wright essentially saying that Hurston’s fiction work undermined her Black male counterparts’ attempts to combat racism. Out of print for almost three decades post its original publication date in 1937, the novel was rediscovered in the 1970’s by Black scholars, programs, and academic institutions across the US. Alice Walker was one of those scholars directly responsible for the Hurston revival that still exists today with companies like create, Inc.
The dramatic saga of Hurston’s most successful work of literature was directed by Marishka S. Phillips featuring a powerful cast that included: Kimberly Monroe (Nanny), Lauren Marissa Smith (Janie), Michael Oloyede (Logan), DeMarcus Woods (Jody), Sawandi Wilson (Teacake), Antwain Lewis (Amos), Dontalle Sylvester (Lee), Nicolette Ellis (Pheoby), Kellee Fuller (Daisy), Jennifer Russie Burks (Soul of Janie). Presented at New York City’s oldest run theatre WOW Cafè the audience was taken on the emotional life journey of Janie Mae Crawford, a mulatto woman born by the violence of rape from Florida. Free-spirited, in search of life and her authentic self, we watch Janie’s progression towards womanhood from a teen bride who, at sixteen, married a grubbing farmer at the anxious instigation of her slave-born grandmother, as she undertakes an unpredictable journey that includes three marriages, navigating complex cultural morals and surviving within the social expectations of a small Southern town. Director Marishka S. Phillips doesn’t hold back on the highlighting the complexities of each character throughout the play as the actors leave their souls on the stage for the audience to interpret. More importantly, Phillips introduces the audience to another layer of Janie with the charismatic and vulnerable, yet eerily memorable actor and musician Jennifer Russie Burks as the Soul of Janie. Burks carries the audience through Janie’s innermost thoughts and fears with her beloved violin and narration. There is a great juxtaposition between Burks as the Soul of Janie and Laren Marissa Smith as Janie Mae Crawford throughout the play as Smith brilliantly captures the unapologetically independent and quick temper of Janie. For the first time, the audience is able to experience the direct effects of the suffocating of Janie’s spirit as she obliges the endless rules and norms of being a Black woman in the 1920’s. Smith is witty, funny, passionate, and conveys the defiance in Janie’s character with the utmost sensitivity reminding the audience of Hurston’s beautiful manipulation of language within those memorable lines from the classic. You find yourself lost in the literature as all the actors deal with the social, cultural, and economic constraints of their characters lives. Hurston’s literary works are undoubtedly pivotal within American and Black history because her work was an effective political weapon, that promoted racial pride and unsilenced the voices of Black woman way ahead of her time.
It is no coincidence that the revival of this play took place at the WOW Cafe Theatre women’s theater collective in NYC’s East Village, which promotes the empowerment of women through the performing arts. You can support this project and other create, inc. endeavors through our ongoing fundraising efforts at https://www.gofundme.com/astageplay. All donations over $5 US are tax
Checkout out the highlights below!