Ruby Dee has tapped a rich lode in her effort to dramatize the life and works of black writer and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston. "My Name is Zora!," which repeats tonight only at Howard University's Cramton Auditorium, explores material rich enough to overcome the largely technical problems that hamper the piece in its current state.
The simplest of the problems evident in the opening (and premiere) performance last night was a sound system that unmercifully obliterated countless speeches and punch lines. More difficult is the task of the director-adaptor, Dee, who needs to prune and shape the play, and--more important--decide how to combine Hurston's work with the biographical details of her life, too many of which are thrown together rather stiffly at the end. (They include the information that it was Hurston who, during her student days, gave the name "The Hilltop" to Howard's newspaper, a publication much in the news lately.)
Dee, who uses herself perhaps too sparingly as a member of the cast, is elegant and charismatic in her scenes as Hurston, the Florida-born woman who grew up in an all-black town of "300 brown souls, two schools and no jails." The first act concentrates on the small-town tale-telling that shaped Hurston's later work as an anthropologist and a novelist.
Interspersed with sayings and ripostes ("If a woman got anything to sit on, she got something big enough to hit on"), the tales told by the folks who sit on the porch of Eatonville's General Store range from poetic images to incredible flights of fancy. One couple describes how man came to be physically stronger than woman, a lengthy story that involves personal requests to both God and the devil. Another yarn has to do with a woman who left her husband after he took seven years just getting to the door to fetch a doctor for her.
If the first act's problem is that it is too long, the second is caught between continuing the flavor of the folklore and dispensing biographical information. The seams show.
Dee is aided by an excellent cast, including husband Ossie Davis and son Guy Davis, as well as local performers Lynda Gravatt and Joseph Pinckney and Howard graduate Helena Wright.