Healing 'Words'

Healing 'Words'

Actress Vanessa Bell Calloway brings African-American icon Zora Neale Hurston to life in ‘Letters from Zora: In Her Own Words’ at the Pasadena Playhouse

By Carl Kozlowski 05/07/2014

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Throughout her life, Zora Neale Hurston was a trendsetter, finding success as the author of four novels, including the classic “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” as well as more than 50 published essays, short stories and plays. Yet, because she was trapped living amid some of the worst racial segregation and discrimination in American society, she often struggled financially and wound up dying penniless with an unmarked grave.

Incredibly, Hurston was able to regain even greater fame and attention long after her death, building a broad and admiring base of fans who embraced her work posthumously. And one of the brightest tributes yet, the one-woman show “Letters from Zora: In Her Own Words” starring Vanessa Bell Calloway, will be presented Saturday through May 18 at the Pasadena Playhouse, giving local theatergoers a chance to see her richest and most personal thoughts brought to vibrant life onstage. 

“The playwright, Gabrielle Denise Pina, is a sorority sister of mine and she wanted me to do it,” says Calloway, who has received eight NAACP Image Award nominations for her extensive roles, including parts in the movies “Coming to America,” “What’s Love Got to Do With It?” and the Showtime series “Shameless.” 

“She said this was for USC’s Vision and Voices program, which was only a one-day show, but then she wanted me to do it again for the following year. I thought it was a lot of work for a one-day event, but I fell in love with the script and the place was packed with a couple hundred folks on the waiting list, so we took it to the Playhouse last summer and it was such a hit they invited us back.”

“Letters” is built around the dramatization of personal letters by Hurston, whose controversial views on integration, segregation and social justice often overwhelmed the public’s perception of her artistic triumphs. In fact, the indignities she had to suffer in the last years of her life included being fired from an archivist position at PanAm Airlines for being “too well-educated,” a false accusation of child molestation, and her final years working as a maid. 
Tragically, Hurston died in 1960 following a stroke while being treated for hypertensive heart disease in a county-run welfare home, and her grave was unmarked until novelist Alice Waker and literary scholar Charlotte Hunt provided her a headstone in 1973. That honor led to a revival in attention and acclaim for Hurston that has shined brightly ever since. 
“The revival is due to a lot of things, the most important being that African-American people have a need and firsthand interest in revisiting their black icons,” says Calloway. “They all walk out stunned and crying. You need to know your history, and it’s always been the plan to move this beyond the Playhouse. This deserves to be acknowledged by theaters everywhere.”  

“Letters from Zora: In Her Own Words” opens at 8 p.m. Saturday and runs through May 18 at the Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena. Tickets are $40 to $100. Call (626) 356-7529 or visit pasadenaplayhouse.org.

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