The Show Goes On!

By Nelson Pressley
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Things are a bit muddled in certain corners of the Atlas Performing Arts Center, what with the African Continuum Theatre Company experiencing financial woes and the sudden departure of its recently named artistic director. But thanks to presenter Tribute Productions, owned by Atlas founder Jane Lang, the company can still put on a decent show.

"Spunk" is the piece that's gamely going on, and George C. Wolfe's 1989 adaptation of three Zora Neale Hurston tales holds the stage like the colorfully crafted, rugged piece of folklore it is. Hurston's language is slangy and vivacious, and KenYatta Rogers's cast does well by it, especially when the drama is more taut.

Take, for instance, the first tale, "Sweat." It's the story of a washerwoman and her abusive husband, and the tension between Jessica Frances Dukes and Shane Taylor smolders and flares as the characters spit flamboyantly crafted hatred at one another.

The roles are reversed in the mournful third tale, "The Gilded Six-Bits," with Taylor as an aggrieved husband whose wife (Dukes again) cheats with a flashy stranger. Different cadence, different mood, same magnetic storytelling, and a delight for actors who don't just seize on the jazzy words but use them to cut to the characters' hearts.

The performers are aided by the inherent theatrical flair of the material, starting with how Wolfe retains Hurston's writerly voice. Actors might turn to the audience and narrate at any time, and Wolfe then adds texture by calling for puppets here and there.

Real comic beauts are provided in the hustling middle fable ("Story in Harlem Slang") by Marie Schneggenberger -- a snoozing gent on a bench and a floozy attached to her man at the hips and the lips.

Wolfe also mandates music, with everything put inside the warm, witty context of the blues. Michel Baytop plucks a steel guitar as Guitar Man, and Pam Ward belts with gusto and deadpan humor as Blues Speak Woman; together, they set the tone as they stroll across Tony Cisek's bare-bones set, an elegant, soaring timber framework suggesting an expansive roofline.

Such simple stagecraft: Characters are often viewed in silhouette behind hung laundry or quilts. And in "Sweat," a rattlesnake conjured by maracas seems pretty scary when the lights nearly all go out and the loathsome husband stands paralyzed with fear.

Nicely done, in other words, and if smartly mounting what seems to be the foolproof and ever-present "Spunk" doesn't seem like a notable achievement, it's something for a company as unsettled as African Continuum. (It's probably also good for the Atlas, which is still in the relatively early days of growing audiences for its appealing facility on H Street NE.) What follows for African Continuum is uncertain, but with Tribute's help, this is enough to give audiences reason to wonder.

Spunk, by Zora Neale Hurston, adapted by George C. Wolfe, music by Chic Street Man. Directed by KenYatta Rogers. Music direction by William F. Hubbard. Choreography, Michael J. Bobbitt; lights, Dan Covey; costumes, Erin Nugent; sound design, David Lamont Wilson. With Donovan Hagins and Andrew Honeycutt. Through Dec. 23 at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE. Call 202-399-7993 or visit http://.

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