Directed by Marion McClinton
At Center Stage Through Feb. 5
Zora Neale Hurston’s 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God is now considered a classic, but the book was heavily criticized by Hurston’s peers. Richard Wright wrote, “The sensory sweep of her novel carries no theme, no message, no thought.” Ralph Ellison called it “a blight of calculated burlesque.” (Hurston’s critics disapproved, in part, of the dialect in which her characters spoke.) But though the story of Janie’s quest for fulfillment is very much of its time and place—the empty swamplands of Florida in the early 20th century—Wright was wrong about its lack of message. It is not only an absorbing depiction of the difficult life of a young black woman; it has become a classic because it is also a portrait of the human longing for self-determination, and the risks one takes in following the heart.
Gleam, playwright Bonnie Lee Moss Rattner’s adaptation of the novel, captures both those strains and much of the powerful dialogue, and Center Stage’s current production is a masterful one. Though some of the historical sweep of the novel is missing from the play, the basic structure remains. After a year and a half away, Janie (Christiana Clark) returns home to the all-black township of Eatonville, Fla. (where Hurston also grew up) and tells Pheoby Watson (Stephanie Berry), her friend of many years, the story of how she has become “a delegate in the grand association of life.” Pheoby, who has been charged with dishing to the gossipy townsfolk, subsequently becomes the storyteller herself, as the tale is re-enacted before her.
The story begins with Janie as a starry-eyed 16-year-old, reeling after her first kiss, and progresses through her three marriages to very different men, until by the end she is a battered, widowed woman nearing 40 years old who has nevertheless finally experienced joy. After that fateful kiss, Nanny, her grandmother (Tonia M. Jackson), fears she will go astray and marries her off to a much older man named Logan Killicks (played to the undesirable hilt by Thomas Jefferson Byrd), who mainly wants a domestic servant. Janie soon runs off with a smooth-talking visitor named Jody Starks (Axel Avin Jr.) and spends the next two decades as his wife in Eatonville, where he runs a store and becomes mayor. But he regards her solely as a trophy and treats her with contempt. When Starks becomes ill and dies, Janie runs off once more (to the disapproval of the townsfolk). Her new husband is a roving, free-spirited gambler named Tea Cake (a mischievous, winning Brooks Edward Brantly). He lives from moment to moment, and in wooing her talks of dreams and proposes adventures, like going fishing at night. This time, it’s love, and believably so.
Gleam has a stellar cast, but you simply cannot take your eyes off Janie. Clark is tall and beautiful, but she is also magnetic because of the incredible range of emotion and emotional maturity she summons through the arc of the story. Though there are no changes in her makeup or physical appearance over these decades, Clark manages to age imperceptibly through the way she carries herself and the dignity that seems slowly to accrue.
Several members of the supporting cast stand out, but Nanny’s brief role is a particularly powerful one. The hairs on one’s arms stand on end as the former slave says wearily, “Put me down easy, Janie. Ah’m a cracked plate.” She warns Janie to be content with her lot, saying, “You don’t even know where harm is at,” a line that sums up a good deal of the play.
For all the weighty themes it touches upon—race, gender and class, self-knowledge and sexuality—Gleam is often very funny. The gossip of the townspeople takes the tone of parody, and in one hilarious scene Janie and Jody “play the dozens,” trading biting put-downs about their sagging nether regions. Pheoby promises to keep mum about Janie’s ecstatic new sex life with Tea Cake thus: “Chicken drink water, but he don’t pee-pee.”
And the production is also engrossing because of the ingenious set. Angles, such as a walkway that ascends off stage left, create dynamism, and movable elements like the hollow facades of a store counter and a bed that rolls out from beneath the steps make for smooth scene transitions. The backdrop is a translucent scrim, allowing for changing lighting: the orange glow of a sunrise, the purple of dusk. Trees hung with Spanish moss complete the look, as does a somewhat incongruous though attractive proscenium arch decorated with tools and wagon wheels.
Music is also a major element, in the form of piano and fiddle tunes between scenes as well as beneath selected dialogue, a nice cinematic touch. The characters often break into song as well, traditional hymns that recur and lend a sense of continuity.
By the end, perhaps more than one person in the audience feels swelled up with the promise and pain of Janie’s story, much like Pheoby herself. As the story ends, Pheoby turns to her friend with tears in her eyes. “I ain’t satisfied with myself no more,” she says. “I aim to make [my husband] take me fishing.”