Vanessa Bell Calloway

Vanessa Bell Calloway stars in "Letters from Zora," now at the Pasadena Playhouse. (Photo courtesy of Pasadena Playhouse / March 4, 2012)

"Letters from Zora," Gabrielle Denise Pina's multimedia, one-woman play starring Vanessa Bell Calloway as iconic novelist Zora Neale Hurston, opens at the Pasadena Playhouse on Sunday, a return engagement after last year's popular limited run.

Controversial and fiercely independent, Hurston ("Their Eyes Were Watching God"), a gifted writer, folklorist and pioneering anthropologist, rose to prominence during the Harlem Renaissance, only to lapse into obscurity after World War II. (When she died in 1960, Hurston was buried in an unmarked grave.) Today, Hurston's place in the literary canon is firmly established, following efforts by author Alice Walker and others in the 1970s to reclaim her.

Hurston's own correspondence provides the basis for Pina's play, directed by Anita Dashiell-Sparks with projections of archival images and a score by jazz musician/composer Ron McCurdy.

The spark for the play began four years ago, when novelist Pina a faculty member of USC's Master of Professional Writing Program, happened upon letters from Hurston at the California African American Museum during a touring exhibition of the famed Kinsey Collection , a privately held compendium of 400 years of African American art, books, artifacts and documents.

"There were letters from Langston Hughes, from Malcolm X and Dr. King, and then I ran across a letter from Zora Neale Hurston," Pina said. "I was mesmerized. When I left the museum, the museum didn't leave me."

One of the most memorable Hurston letters that day, Pina said, was written to Hurston's former husband Albert Price. "She was very angry at him, and she eviscerated him in this letter without using a single curse word, stating what a horrible human being, a blight upon humanity this man was. But it was so beautifully written," Pina said. "I was cringing and laughing at the same time."

Pina contacted the Kinsey Collection's owners, Bernard and Shirley Kinsey, to see what other Hurston material they had, "and they had so much, a lot of Hurston's original letters written in her own hand. Her soul was in those letters."

"It was meaningful for me because she was an African American woman during a very difficult time to be an African American woman," Pina said, and because "it didn't matter what other people told her she should do. It didn't matter what society dictated she should do." Zora Neale Hurston "lived a life created by her own design."

Pina's musician husband McCurdy, a USC Thornton School professor, convinced her that she had a play in the making. If she wrote it, he told her, he would compose the music.

"So then I thought, what would she want people to know about her life," Pina said, "and how can I do this in a way that would connect people to the real Zora Neale Hurston? That was my ultimate goal. That you walk away from this play and you have an understanding of her and her work."

McCurdy's score, an essential element of the production, incorporates bottleneck blues guitar, harmonica, jazz and other music specific to Hurston's time, Pina said. "During the Harlem Renaissance and that time period, people relied on the written word and art and music to demonstrate who they were, and to express what was going on with their own souls. And Zora loved music, so we thought it was important to have a musical landscape, a soundtrack to her life."

The production's archival images, too, evoke time and place. When Calloway as Zora speaks of Langston Hughes, poet Countee Cullen, President Franklin Roosevelt, segregation, lynching "or what have you," Pina said, "it's right behind her. You have this multisensory experience of the music, the words and the images."

"I'm an educator," Pina added, "and on some level, I will always be an educator. This is part of American history. Zora Neale Hurston helped to define the American literary canon."

Stage and screen veteran Calloway ("Coming to America," "What's Love Got to Do With It," Showtime's "Shameless"), like McCurdy and director Dashiell-Sparks, has been with the play from its first performance before a packed house at USC's Bovard Auditorium in 2012. She considers the role of Hurston "a beautiful gift.

"I'm not trying to become her, but the essence of her," Calloway said. "She was ahead of her time, she was misunderstood, she loved men, she loved life, and she loved travel. There were so many things that she loved, a lot that she sacrificed, and a lot that she was unable to achieve because of the time she was born and what was going on in the country."

Had Hurston been a different color, Calloway added, "she would have been celebrated more. So it's wonderful that we can celebrate her now. She didn't get her roses while she was alive, but at least her memory is being honored."

Tweaks to the current production, the result of further research, include the fact that Hurston "was one of the first women to write about having an orgasm," Pina said. "She had to write about it metaphorically, so I went back and added that. I love that she dared to create a female protagonist who was sexually liberated."

Future productions of "Letters From Zora" may become part of a national tour, Pina said. "We're working on that. I've been in negotiations with the Zora Neale Hurston trust, and that is looking really good."

Pina, who is at work on her third novel, tentatively titled, "A Season for Hummingbirds," has just finished her second play, "Dreaming of Harlem Under a High Southern Sky." It is slated to premiere at USC in March as part of the university's "Visions & Voices: Arts and Humanities Initiative."

What: "Letters from Zora"

Where: Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena.

When: Opens Sunday, May 11; Runs 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday; 4 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday. Ends May 18.

Tickets: $40 to $100.

More info: (626) 356-7529, PasadenaPlayhouse.org

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LYNNE HEFFLEY
writers about theater and culture for Marquee.