Zora's Brilliant Afterglow

Drama tracks meteoric rise and fall of Harlem Renaissance writer Zora Neale Hurston. THEATER: REVIEW

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

ZORA NEALE HURSTON Theatrical biography by Laurence Holder. Directed by Wynn Handman. At the American Place Theatre. THIS show commemorates the exuberant rise and the sudden, tragic decline of an American original. With playwright Laurence Holder's sympathetic compilation and Elizabeth Van Dyke's dynamic performance, the American Place Theatre pays generous and deserved tribute to the once heralded ``Queen of the Harlem Renaissance.''

The ``theatrical biography'' begins and ends on Christmas Eve, 1949, in a bus station as bleak as the event it chronicles: a devastated Zora's return to Florida, where her extraordinary career began. As the one-act play shifts backward from its grim introduction, Miss Van Dyke transforms herself into the precocious teenager who, mostly by her own determination and gifts, achieved the education that included Howard University and Barnard College, where she was the only black student. With a Barnard fellowship procured for her by Dr. Frank Boas, Zora was on her way to the work, as anthropologist and folklorist, that eventually led to her writing career.

In Mr. Holder's well-crafted vignettes, the first-person reminiscences embrace a rich assortment of relationships. Slight, supple, and spontaneously expressive, Van Dyke's Zora is typically amusing as she recalls her guest-star status at celebrity parties and performs samples of the folk tales that won her acclaim. With sly humor, she impersonates a ``godmother'' patron who ``wanted to control everything about me'' and who was notably stingy when it came to buying shoes for her proteg'e.

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The various men in Zora's life - including a sampling of husbands who came and went - are accommodatingly played by Tim Johnson (who also serves as offstage flutist). Chief among Zora's literary colleagues is poet Langston Hughes, the friend and collaborator (on the play, ``Mule Bone''), with whom she ultimately quarreled.

Holder gives full rein to Zora's sharp tongue, particularly when she is defending herself and attacking her contemporaries. As it progresses, ``Zora Neale Hurston'' becomes almost too strident at times - both in the writing and in the otherwise admirable performance staged by Wynn Handman.

Holder offers no elaboration on the trumped up morals charge of molesting a minor which was subsequently dropped but which left Zora's life and career in ruins. Her exit to the waiting bus that will take her home to Florida brings this account of a brief, meteoric career to a stabbing conclusion. At the end of the performance, Van Dyke received a standing ovation which in this case was eminently deserved.

The stark production was designed by Terry Chandler (scenery) and Shirley Prendergast (lighting). As part of the theater's special student program, ``Zora Neale Hurston'' plays Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday mornings at 11 a.m. as well as Wednesday matinees at 2 p.m., Sunday matinees at 3 p.m.; Thursdays and Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m.

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