Theater review: After a shaky start, ‘Spunk’ finds its groove

Notwithstanding a vibrant musical number that opens the show, it takes awhile for “Spunk” to really get moving. But once it warms up and settles into its groove, director Hilda Willis’ production for Kenny Leon’s True Colors Theatre is a flavorful and fairly irresistible pleasure.

Adapted by playwright George C. Wolfe (“The Colored Museum”) from the short stories of Harlem Renaissance author Zora Neale Hurston (“Their Eyes Were Watching God”), and featuring several original songs by Chic Street Man, “Spunk” spans the “joy and pain of being human” to depict the black experience of the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s in three folkloric “tales of survival told in the key of the blues.”

The first and least memorable of them is “Sweat” — not only because it’s the heaviest or most serious (about a hardworking washer woman and her abusive deadbeat husband), but also because it’s required to establish the dramatic device Wolfe employs throughout the play of having different characters alternating as narrators within each story.

It takes some getting used to. In one breath, a man and wife are conversing at the breakfast table. In the next, the actors are suddenly talking in third person. “His coffee cup was empty,” he says. “She sprang to refill it,” she says.

In group scenes, one character might start a descriptive sentence while another one finishes it, and it’s often difficult just figuring out who’s speaking at all or where to focus your attention. (That’s largely due to the fact Willis equips her entire cast with body mics. Their voices don’t emanate from whenever they happen to be on stage at any given time so much as they’re piped through the same speakers — in essence distorting what’s meant to be heard in stereo and amplifying it in mono.)

The “Harlemese” vernacular of the play can be challenging to follow, too. A glossary of slang terms in the program helps, but it’s mainly a testament to this versatile True Colors ensemble that the language flows as smoothly as it does: Cycerli Ash, Gilbert Glenn Brown, Theodis Ealey, Tawana Lael, Bernardine Mitchell, Brad Raymond and Geoffrey D. Williams. You don’t necessarily need to grasp every word they’re saying to catch the drift.

With additional kudos to music director S. Renee Clark, as “Spunk” segues into its second vignette, Ealey’s Guitar Man and Mitchell’s Blues Speak Woman perform a glorious musical interlude that definitely turns the show around and sets it on a much more enjoyable path.

“A Story in Harlem Slang” showcases Williams, Raymond and Brown strutting their stuff with formidable flair as Slang Talk Man, Sweetback and Jelly, respectively, a trio of jive-talking “pimps” (in colorful zoot suits designed by Jonida Beqo) who meet their match in a no-nonsense romantic interest (Lael). The roles could have come across as offensive stereotypes in less capable hands.

In the show’s second act, the various theatrical elements finally coalesce with a lovely flourish in “The Gilded Six-Bits.” Williams and Ash sensitively portray a happily married young couple, one of whom is temporarily led astray before true love prevails. Like those characters, “Spunk” overcomes some daunting odds to ultimately find its heart and soul.

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