The work of Zora Neale Hurston to be celebrated on stage and screen at UAlbany

Zora Neale Hurston fascinates us for many reasons, not the least of which is that she is claimed as part of LGBTQ history. As was common in that era, this basic identity was masked and hidden, and both scholars and journalists are hesitant to make the claim outright for lack of specific attribution. Nevertheless, one only needs to read her work, her hilarious portrait of men and unsparing depiction of the foibles of life as a minority to sense that this was no ordinary daughter of a Baptist minister, but an authentic and rebellious voice that rarely held back. Still it seems the one inhibition she could not overcome was revealing her own basic identity. To me, it is and has always been there, between the lines, for those who know how to parse the truth from literary obfuscation.Larry Murray

The UAlbany Performing Arts Center and the NYS Writers Institute are pleased to present Eyes on Zora: The Life and Legacy of Zora Neale Hurston, a series of events focusing on the life and work of one of the most important and celebrated figures to emerge from the Harlem Renaissance. Outspoken, spirited and gifted, Hurston (1891-1960) was an anthropologist but is more identified and well-known as a prolific writer, her books defining the black American experience. Famous for her vivacious and unapologetic personality, Hurston wrote works of fiction and folklore which drove forward both the Harlem Renaissance and the Civil Rights movement.

Ushering in February’s Black History Month, public events take place in late January in multiple locations both on and beyond the University at Albany campus. The schedule includes:

FILM SCREENING: Based on Hurston’s classic novel, adapted by Pulitzer-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks and produced by Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Films, Their Eyes Were Watching God is directed by Darnell Martin and features Halle Berry as the free-spirited Janie, a woman whose quest for love and a meaningful life challenges the morals of a small American town in the 1920s. Martin, the first black woman to write and direct a film for a major Hollywood studio with her debut feature, I Like It Like That (1994), will discuss the film and answer questions immediately following the screening. She will be joined by Emily Bernard, author, professor and scholar of African American literature, who was featured in the PBS American Masters documentary, Zora Neale Hurston: Jump at the Sun (2008). Admission to the screening is free and open to the public. No tickets are required. Screening of Their Eyes Were Watching God takes place on Friday, January 29 at 7pm at Page Hall on the downtown campus at 135 Western Avenue in Albany.

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INTERACTIVE WORKSHOP: Developed in 2013 by Young Audiences New York with the support of the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, The Folktales of Zora Neale Hurston is an interactive theatre program specifically geared for young children with their families. It follows several of the folktales featured in Hurston’s various compilations allowing the participants to choose what happens next in the action and serves not only to teach about Hurston and her work but to engage participants in the powers of imagination and the art of storytelling. Admission to the program is free and open to the public but space is limited. Reservations can be made by calling the Washington Avenue branch at (518) 427-4310 and the Howe branch at (518) 472-9485. The first 25 registrants at each location will receive a free copy of Hurston’s book, Lies and Other Tall Tales, courtesy of the UAlbany Foundation. The Folktales of Zora Neale Hurston takes place on Saturday, January 30 at 11am at the Washington Avenue branch of the Albany Public Library (APL) at 161 Washington Avenue and again at 3pm at APL’s Howe branch at 105 Schuyler Street

As Zora, Cheryl Howard invites the audience into her exemplary life, rich with folklore, intimate portraits of her contemporaries, and excerpts from her significant body of literary work.

As Zora, Cheryl Howard invites the audience into her exemplary life, rich with folklore, intimate portraits of her contemporaries, and excerpts from her significant body of literary work.

STAGE PRESENTATION: Adapted and directed by Wynn Handman for American Place Theatre from the play by Laurence Holder, Zora is a theatrical biography performed by Cheryl Howard which captures the extraordinary spirit of the “Queen of the Harlem Renaissance” and invites the audience into her exemplary life — rich with folklore, intimate portraits of her contemporaries and excerpts from her significant body of literary work. Incorporating music from the era, the story focuses on Hurston’s battle to preserve her people’s culture and to live an authentic life against all odds. A pre-performance discussion conducted by a master teaching artist from Young Audiences New York begins at 2:30pm. A reception sponsored by Zeta Phi Beta will take place following the performance. The performance of American Place Theatre’s Zora is slated for Sunday, January 31 at 3pm at the UAlbany Performing Arts Center on the uptown campus at 1400 Washington Avenue in Albany. Advance tickets are $15 for the general public and $10 for students, seniors and UAlbany faculty-staff. Tickets purchased on the day of the show are $20 for the general public and $15 for students, seniors and UAlbany faculty-staff. Reservations can be made by contacting the UAlbany Performing Arts Center Box Office at (518) 442-3997.

The history of American Place Theatre (APT) is rich and varied with a consistent commitment to nurturing the talents of American authors, playwrights and actors. Having received over 30 Obies and 16 Audelcos, it is critically acclaimed as a birthing place for artistic endeavors at the crossroad of literature and live performance for over 50 years. Its Literature to Life series offers professionally staged theatrical adaptations of significant American literary works.

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In addition to the public events, two other events will take place:

The artists from Young Audiences New York will visit Albany High School on Monday, February 1 for two offerings of the Living Library program, Their Eyes Were Watching God. This 90 minute educational program immerses students in literary analysis and arts-integrated activities to examine themes of courage, self-identity, life choices and decision-making as addressed in the novel. Included in the program is a 20-minute performance adaptation of excerpted, verbatim material from the book, a talk-back in which students speak directly with characters from the novel and dramatic activities that challenge them to think and respond critically to problem’s faced by the book’s protagonist.

There will also be a special morning matinee performance of Zora for high school groups on Tuesday, February 2 at 10am. High school educators wishing to receive information and/or make reservations for this matinee should call the Performing Arts Center office at (518) 442-5738.

The full series of events was planned in conjunction with the Albany Public Library and Albany High School. Support has been provided by the Alumni Association, Office of Intercultural Student Engagement, University Auxiliary Services, Diversity Transformation Fund administered through the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, UAlbany Foundation and the Hampton Inn.

Zora Neale Hurston's 37-cent stamp features a portrait of Hurston by artist Drew Struzan based on a 1934 black-and-white photograph taken in Chicago by Carl Van Vechten. The background of the stamp recalls the setting of Hurston's novel "Their Eyes Were Watching God."

Zora Neale Hurston’s 37-cent stamp features a portrait of Hurston by artist Drew Struzan based on a 1934 black-and-white photograph taken in Chicago by Carl Van Vechten. The background of the stamp recalls the setting of Hurston’s novel “Their Eyes Were Watching God.”

About Zora

After her mother’s death, Zora’s father remarried quickly–to a young woman whom the hotheaded Zora almost killed in a fistfight–and seemed to have little time or money for his children. “Bare and bony of comfort and love,” Zora worked a series of menial jobs over the ensuing years, struggled to finish her schooling, and eventually joined a Gilbert & Sullivan traveling troupe as a maid to the lead singer. In 1917, she turned up in Baltimore; by then, she was 26 years old and still hadn’t finished high school. Needing to present herself as a teenager to qualify for free public schooling, she lopped 10 years off her life–giving her age as 16 and the year of her birth as 1901. Once gone, those years were never restored: From that moment forward, Hurston would always present herself as at least 10 years younger than she actually was. Apparently, she had the looks to pull it off. Photographs reveal that she was a handsome, big-boned woman with playful yet penetrating eyes, high cheekbones, and a full, graceful mouth that was never without expression.

Zora also had a fiery intellect, an infectious sense of humor, and “the gift,” as one friend put it, “of walking into hearts.” Zora used these talents–and dozens more–to elbow her way into the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, befriending such luminaries as poet Langston Hughes and popular singer/actress Ethel Waters. Though Hurston rarely drank, fellow writer Sterling Brown recalled, “When Zora was there, she was the party.” – From her biography. [link]

More information on the series can be obtained by contacting the UAlbany Performing Arts Center box office at (518) 442-3997 or tickets@albany.edu.

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