Zora Returns To Harlem
Antonia Badon As Zora Neal Hurston
For theater lovers in New York City there is an embarrassment of riches. There is of course the usual Broadway fare; but there is also a wide variety of daring productions Off-Broadway and Off Off Broadway. And then there are those who put on productions in all sorts of makeshift theaters, employing their artistic creativity to entrepreneurial tasks just as Shakespeare did to create audiences for his theatrical entertainments. One of the newest venues for theatrical performance is the Baton Rouge restaurant on 145th street near Convent Ave, just up the street from the campus of City College. This is the second incarnation for this posh Harlem café. Not too long ago it opened as the “Sugar Hill Bistro,” an elegant eatery that featured jazz performances. It opened with great promise, inspiring the peerless trumpet virtuoso Wynton Marsalis to perform with his band gratis. Here’s hoping that this time out the owners will have better luck in this grand restaurant of several floors.
On this enchanted Sunday evening, amid the exotic aromas of Louisiana cuisine and period art, the beautiful and talented Louisiana born actress Antonia Badon recreates the life and times of the fascinating Harlem Renaissance writer Zora Neale Hurston, a /folklorist and adventuress. She enters the stage dressed in the glamorous style of bygone days, wide brim straw hat, high heels and all. After lamenting her present predicament she reverts to childhood, affecting the change of age with a series of costume changes and speaking in a child’s voice. While all theater requires a leap of the imagination, the spare sets in the cramped performance space afforded by this packed dining room tested the limits of the audience’s imagination.
The script, like all of Laurence Holder’s plays, evokes all the important people, places and events that recreate the historical milieu in which the drama is set. Zora made her entrance into New York as a student at Barnard College, Columbia University’s college for women, and Holder delves into her experience studying with Franz Boas, the pioneering American anthropologist. She went from naïve country girl to a Jazz Age flapper as the result of an amazing red and black flapper outfit that displayed her striking physical assets to great advantage. Ms. Badon pranced and danced about the stage as she brought Holder’s historical portrait of Zora and 1920’s Harlem bubbling to life.
The Real Zora
Looking smart and glamorous
The costume changes, which are essential to creating the grand illusion that we are witnessing the different phases of Zora’s life is aided greatly by excellent choices of music, as nothing evokes the zeitgeist of a bygone age like music. Her fourth costume change is a chic black suit, which she wears as if it were molded to her voluptuous pecan tan frame, and it evokes a sophisticated Zora as she recounts her experiences as a published writer living off the patronage of Charlotte Osgood Mason, a rich eccentric white woman with quaint ideas about black people and the art they create. She recounts how she had to do a little “Tommin” in order to remain in the good graces of the silly white woman whom they all referred to as “Godmother,” because she insisted that the art they produce must be “primitive!” She also evokes the pathos that accompanied the death of the “Harlem Renaissance” when the depression came, the money dried up, and Harlem was no longer in vogue.
We next see her dressed in bohemian style smoking wisdom weed and contemplating an offer by a lover to get hitched. However she makes it clear that the domestic role wives were expected to play held no charms for her. But considering her bleak economic prospects she agrees to marry Herbie, who is a musician and dancer. It didn’t last long, and she laments the failure of her marriage and her failed relations with men in general. From her father, to Langston Hughes – whom she had once adored but had a falling out with over the play they co-authored, “Mule Bone.” Next we see her as the folklorist who has collected a great collection of folk tales that she cannot get published. She ruminates over her plight and wonders if the reason she can’t find a publisher is because “They don’t like the way I portray my people: Big, bad, and independent!” Then she is suddenly approached about writing fiction and we witness the birth of her fine 1934 novel Jonah’s Gourd Vine.
When she returns after the intermission Ms. Badon is Zora at her most glamorous; she is stunning in a floor length gown and mink stole adorning her honey brown skin. The big band music is swinging and she is in high spirits as she plays the grand dame who is riding high with literary success. She storms about chastising the black critics who misunderstood what she was trying to achieve in her beautifully textured novel Their Eyes were Watching God, which Oprah Winfrey made into a television movie starring the fabulous Halle Berry.
The most poignant aspect of this cleverly written vignette is her excoriation of Richard Wright and his sad suffering Negroes. She told us how she would never invite those sad sacks to dinner at her crib. It was a wonderful way of exploring the conflict between Zora and Wright – which in effect represents two visions of black American life in the apartheid south. The audience was with her – grunting their approval – as she agonized over the fact that poor Richard’s tragic vision of black people was all the white folks wanted to hear. Thus there was little room for Zora’s affirmative vision of black southern life. She also denounces the patrician and hypercritical reviews of the Howard University Philosopher Alain Locke. She dances to conjure music, old time gospels and curses the philandering younger man she married. Then as she retires for a costume change we are anointed with the heavenly and sensuous blues sound of Charlie Parker playing “Stella By Starlight.”
When we next see Ms. Badon she is decked out in a white linen jacket and wide brim white straw hat, looking too marvelous for words as the music evokes the elegance of a bygone age in Afro-American life. She denounces the Communists, accuses them of using Richard Wright and Paul Robeson, and sings the praises of American democracy while denouncing the desires of some black folks who would abandon black institutions in favor of integrating with whites. This attitude led her to oppose the landmark 1954 Supreme Court Decision in Brown Vs The Board of Education of Topeka Kansas. Here Laurence Holder has not only done his home work but has made the most of the fruits of his labors; capturing the complex nuances of Zora’s thought about race, art and politics in American society.
With the next costume change Zora is adorned in her bathroom ruminating about her illness, and the lack of interest by publishers in her work although she was one of the most versatile writers in America. And most of all she laments the destruction of what was left of her reputation due to a false charge of sodomizing a 10 year-old-boy. She tells us the case was thrown out after the authorities discovered that the boy’s mother concocted the story due to a personal grudge she had against Zora, and furthermore the boy had a history of emotional problems.
Alas, we finally see Zora as a down and out writer moving on in age with no interests in her work by magazine editors and book publishers. But still she regales us with a tall tale. In this Zora at least, the fire in her soul never dies. It is a heroic performance by Ms. Badon, who holds the audience – which included the Pulitzer Prize winning investigative journalist and distinguished editor Les Payne – in the palm of her hand for an hour and twenty minutes. When she had spoken her last lines, the applause was tumultuous from the packed room; and she received their generous ovation like the gracious southern lady that she is. Bravo!!
Actress and Entreprenuer Antonia Badon
Promoting her Play at Harlem cultural event
Harlem New York
November 10 2009
* This review was originally published on
The Black World Today
January 27, 2007
*Ms. Badon is presently playing Zora at:
The George Faison Theater in Manhattan
** Photo of Ms. Badon by: Playthell Benjamin