Thursday, July 7, 2022

Vanessa Bell Calloway Channels Zora Neale Hurston in ‘Letters from Zora’ at WACO

Vanessa Bell Calloway as Zora Neale Hurston
Vanessa Bell Calloway as Zora Neale Hurston, photo credit: Derek Blanks

*Zora Neale Hurston was one of the most prolific writers of the twentieth century. She was a thinker who used the power of words to tell stories that passionately reflected her observations of the African American experience. A scholar with an irrefutable sense of humanity, Hurston attended several colleges and universities including Morgan State University (1917-1918) Howard (1918-1920) Barnard (1925-1928) and Columbia (1928-1930). She didn’t stop there, she was also an anthropologist, and civil rights advocate. Her multi-disciplined style of storytelling ventured into folklore, short-stories, plays and novels.

Visionary artists dream that their work will live on long after they are gone, and if this was Hurston’s dream, she is surely smiling right now. Her work continues to live and has inspired some of today’s most respected writers, including Alice Walker and Toni Morrison; an annual festival in Eatonville, FL, where she and her family spent many years, a film loosely based on her 1937 novel: Their Eyes Were Watching God, and now, thanks to writer Gabrielle Denise Pina, a stage play: Letters From Zora

Fortunately for us, Pina has revealed letters written by Hurston to various friends, lovers, and colleagues that document her thoughts on a myriad of social, political and civil rights issues; as well as feelings on love and loss, and everything in between.

In my 2014 review of the play, which (sidebar) I had a hard time locating because for some ungodly reason it was written using my pen name, I wrote:

“We learn of Hurston not through a resurgence of her literary works, one only has to research to read about that,  instead, Gabrielle Denise Pina’s production seems to want us to know Hurston’s character; her personality, the highlights from her journey that helped shape the larger-than-life being that she morphed into.”

Award-winning actress Vanessa Bell Calloway brings Pina’s one-woman play, Letters From Zora, back to Los Angeles by popular demand. This time the production is at WACO Theater Center a beautiful the state-of-the-art space I recently visited, in North Hollywood, where Tina Knowles Lawson and Richard Lawson serve as artistic directors.

The aforementioned review states further:

“As Zora beckons us to join her in a stroll down memory lane, we hear her thoughts and the motivation behind them via the letters she types. An article of clothing, such as a red dress hanging stage right, can spark a memory that might cause her to blush. An old photo or newspaper article gently lifted from a chest at stage left, reveals a story that gives us greater insight into what it was that began to shape her confidence, even as a young girl growing up in the all-black town of Eatonville, Florida. And stills on an overhead projector show us original pictures and letters, handwritten by Hurston.”

Vanessa Bell Calloway as Zora Neale Hurston, photo credit: Derek Blanks

In her busy preparation for this production, Calloway and I “spoke” via text, thanks to her publicist, Lynn Allen Jeter. Through this medium I asked her what it was about Zora that inspired her to perform the role, versus that of any other African American woman in history.

“Truth be told I did not single out Zora…This part kind of came to me,” she says. “If you would’ve told me 10 years ago that I would be doing this beautiful piece, about this incredible raw and real woman through letters that she wrote — and her magnificent work, I would’ve said, ‘Really?’ because that wasn’t on my radar. I called Gabrielle Pina’s play a poem because to me it’s a 90 minute poem because of the beautiful words that she wrote.”

Calloway says she had read about Hurston, but really did not know much about her before research.

“I had to really dig deep to get into the space and I’m so glad I did!” she adds.

Zora Neale Hurston

“I have the nerve to walk my own way, however hard, in my search for reality, rather than climb upon the rattling wagon of wishful illusions.” – Excerpt from Zora Neale Hurston’s letter to her colleague, writer Countee Cullen.

Courtesy Vanessa Bell Calloway

“At this point in my career I am looking to do it all!! Over the past several years I have started directing and I’ve always been producing my own content, especially for the web and I like that,” the enthusiastic actress says in response to my question about work at this stage of her career. “I like producing…directing, and I still love acting; be it on stage in the theater or on television,” she adds, saying, “I’m not giving any of that up. I am looking to expand and grow and I would really love to produce and direct and write an original idea like a movie or TV show, so I am always moving forward that is for sure.”

Letters From Zora, starring Vanessa Bell Calloway, *an 8-time NAACP Image Award nominee, will be presented by WACO (Create a space “Where Art Can Occur”) Theatre Center in collaboration with Nessab Productions and Flybetty Entertainment, LLC. The play, written by Gabrielle Denise Pina and directed by Anita Dashiell Sparks, opens Mother’s Day weekend and runs May 11 through May 20th.

See the poster below for more information.

An email from Richard and Tina Lawson informs opening night is SOLD OUT, but tickets for additional performances can be purchased here. 

*Editor’s note: My apologies for a previous claim that Vanessa Bell Calloway had won 4 NAACP Image Awards. This was an error. She has, in fact, been nominated for an NAACP Image Award, 8 times

About DeBorah B. Pryor:

Courtesy DBP

DeBorah B. Pryor is a former thespian who got her B.A. in Theatre from San Francisco State University. She also has a communications background and designed the class, Public Speaking for the Private Person which she taught at UCLA Extension, and later, placed on CD. She is a senior editor at EURweb, for which she has worked since 2003 writing features, theatre and concert reviews, and managing the sites’ blog, EURThisNthat. Two years ago, on a whim, Pryor started driving for Uber. Her amazing journey as a female rideshare driver 5K trips later is detailed in the recently released book, AREN’T YOU SCARED: Lessons from a Lady Rideshare Driver. Learn more about the book, hear excerpts, or purchase via Amazon Kindle or the website





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