There’s a vintage spiritual with a gentle, folksy tune and a message of optimism, self-worth and defiance: “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.”
It could be the theme song of Zora Neale Hurston’s 1937 novel, “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” a sprawling story about an African American woman named Janie, who struggles to lift male-imposed bushels off of her light and manages, against considerable odds and with inspiring honesty, to shine. Or gleam.
Although not entirely fulfilling, “Gleam,” Bonnie Lee Moss Rattner’s earnest adaptation of the Hurston book, conveys the heart of the matter. And although the Center Stage revival of the play could use a more persuasive anchor in the cast, the production provides an engaging theatrical experience.
First performed under a different title in 1983 at Rattner’s alma mater, Wayne State University (the playwright wrote it as her master’s degree thesis there), a revised version of “Gleam” had its professional premiere five years later at New Jersey’s Crossroads Theater. It has been out of sight since then.
There’s a nice reason to revive the piece in Baltimore — Hurston ...
earned her high school credits here in 1918. She then made her way, after receiving a degree at Howard University, to New York, where she contributed substantially to the Harlem Renaissance.
In “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” Hurston fashioned a very eventful tale, taking place in Florida from the early 1900s to the late 1920s. Any saga is hard to wrestle into shape for the stage (or for film), and Rattner’s distillation ends up with a little more incident than insight.
Janie is pressured into marriage at 16 with a much older man who thinks of her as just another mule on his farm. She makes a break for it with a dashing stranger, who transports her to a new town, where he becomes a big shot and treats her as little more than a prop.
It takes many years and another plot twist before Janie finally has an opportunity to enjoy “things sweet wid mah marriage,” yet that relationship, too, has its challenges. By then, though, she can deal with anything, having tasted freedom of thought and action, something then so uncommon for women of all racial and economic backgrounds.
Janie’s journey, ripe with theatrical possibilities, is told in the language of poor African Americans. That dialect made some readers uncomfortable with Hurston’s book years ago; it still does.
People may feel even queasier today about hearing such dialect, given the legacy of cruelly stereotyped figures in old movies. But the transfer to theater reinforces the ring of truth, and the rich poetic nuance in the language that helped earned Hurston’s novel classic status.
The words often takes on a musical quality in the Center Stage production, especially in the warming voice of Stephanie Berry, as Janie’s friend, Pheoby, who functions as narrator in the play. It’s wonderful to hear her set a scene: “It was spring time an’ de rose of the world was breathing out smell.”
Country sayings and colloquialisms frequently go beyond the quaint to the touching, as when Janie’s weary grandmother Nanny, played vividly by Tonia M. Jackson, asks her to “put me down easy … Ah’m a cracked plate.”
There is a good deal of down-home humor in the script, too. It doesn’t come so much from characters trying to be funny — there’s a you-are-so-ugly exchange, for example. It’s more from delicious ways some of them fancy up a point, including one man’s response to a married couple’s little squabble: “Ah’ll thank yah kindly tuh leave me outta your domesticity.”
Such moments should, of course, be complementary to the central drama of the play. They tend to register more memorably here because Christiana Clark, for all of her fine abilities, offers a one-dimensional portrayal of Janie.
She maintains the same basic volume and deliberate tone of speech, the same way of moving, even when the action moves by flashback to Janie’s teen years. And Clark never reveals enough of the light within Janie. She can certainly be affecting — the final dialogue with Pheoby is beautifully done, for example — but it is hard not to want more personality, more subtlety, more shine.
Axel Avin, Jr., does dynamic work as Jody Starks, the would-be knight who has no use for “puny humans playing ‘round de toes of time,” and “pours honor” all over Janie without remembering to add love. Brooks Edward Brantly easily conveys the sensual charm of Tea Cake, who turns Janie’s world upside down. It’s a kinetic, multi-layered performance.
All of the supporting players bring abundant flair to the stage, forming a tightly matched ensemble. Gavin Lawrence, in particular, is a terrifically animated presence in multiple assignments.
Director Marion McClinton keeps the momentum going and makes good use of David Gallo’s evocative set, subtly lit by Michael Wangen. ESosa’s finely detailed costumes are another plus.
In the end, Rattner’s ambitious realization of an honored novel commands more respect than affection, as does the Center Stage production. But it is well worth being reminded of this slice of American life, with its universal values, failings and desires. There is many a truth, many a lesson to be gleaned from “Gleam.”
The production runs through Feb. 5
PHOTOS BY RICHARD ANDERSON