Vanessa Bell Calloway Exalts ‘Letters From Zora’

Actress Vanessa Bell Calloway Shines in the stage play, "Letters From Zora...In Her Own Words." Photo Credit: Chris Roman
Actress Vanessa Bell Calloway shines in the stage play, “Letters From Zora…In Her Own Words.” Photo Credit: Chris Roman

PASADENA-Actress Vanessa Bell Calloway may pick up an Academy Award one day for her theatrical talents. She’s that kind of good. Earning a Tony Award may come a lot of faster. One of the more gifted and dramatic thespian of this generation, Calloway could be on the hook  for stage acting’s most coveted honor for her knockout portrayal of literary giant Zora Neale Hurston in the stage play, “Letters From Zora…In Her Own Words.”

Playing at the Pasadena Playhouse through this weekend, “Letters From Zora…” is one those special evenings of live entertainment that should be put in a bottle and kept for the duration of time, only to be opened up and showcased when true appreciation has matured.

Watching the riveting Calloway replay the unapologetic Hurston retell her life through the magical words she penned during times of reflection and misdirection is powerful stuff.

You almost don’t want to let it go. Each minute, every sequence of acting by Calloway is like being a fly on the wall listening in on  Hurston’s private moments as the writer goes about seamlessly recalling her love for the great Langston Hughes as a brother, the chauvinistic dismissals of her work by Negro intellectuals such as Richard Wright and others, and her thirst for love and men.

It’s hard to differentiate if it is really Calloway on stage in character or is it Hurston reincarnated coming back to playing tricks on us. Of course, it’s Calloway, best known for her dramatic roles in HawthoRNe, Biker Boyz, What’s Love Got to With It and Shameless. But you couldn’t tell.

As I sat watching “Letters From Zora…” I thought I was listening in on a life pep talk from Hurston as Calloway, in superb narrative storytelling, takes the audience on a journey of a young girl from a childhood of feeling unwanted by her father (which probably explains her up and down history with the men in her life) to the shameful last days of a woman who brought us memorable literary pieces in “Their Eyes Were Watching God,”  and “Dust Tracks on a Road,” broken by a stroke and loneliness.

Written beautifully by Gabrielle Pina and directed Anita Dashell-Sparks, “Letters From Zora…” is Broadway material. Stage plays like “Letters From Zora…” doesn’t comes around too often. And when you add a dynamic, firehouse actress like Calloway as the final piece to the theatrical puzzle you have a sure-fire masterpiece.

Calloway, who often plays tough-as-nails characters, always seem to bring her hard hat and lunch pail with her on the set.

Calloway didn’t just come to work in “Letters from Zora…,” she embodies Hurston to a tee. The television and film star has been great in so many roles she has played that it is difficult to say which is her best. That’s because Calloway seem to always bring her A-game to the table. However, in “Letters From Zora…” it wouldn’t be far of a stretch to say that Calloway outdid anything she’s ever done in this play.

She hit a grand slam with this one. This is the kind of role that could exalt Calloway to being offered Academy Award material, which she is deserving. Hurston was a fireball of a woman with a  mouth that shot off like a pistol. If there was anybody who could pull off playing the hotshot Hurston it is Calloway, who turns in an electrifying performance, one that should not be forgotten.

Calloway, through Hurston, takes us down memory lane to demonstrate how she felt when she lost her mother at the age of 13, how her father practically ignored her and left her wondering about life. Calloway moves us with precision describing Hurston’s exit to going off to a private school before heading to Howard University. Hurston then discovers herself in the prime of the Harlem Renaissance where she strikes up a close kinship with Hughes.

The duo collaborate and come up with “Mule Bone,” a black comedy. But a petty dispute over money and intellectual property between the great writers absolves their relationship permanently. Then there is the matter of the many men that run in and out of her life. Hurston went through men like water dripping out of a faucet. Adding to the drama in her life was the literary tug-o-war she had with many of the leading Negro writers of her day, including Wright.

In spite of all of that going on, Hurston could always escape and find her way in her marvelous storytelling. Part of that pathway to discovery were the letters she wrote as she spoke her opinion on segregation, integration, justice and the Negro experience. Calloway makes us feel that experience. Calloway doesn’t just bring Hurston to life; she gets in the audience’s face  to let them know she’s still here.

And always will be, thanks to Alice Walker.

If you have to see one stage play this year, “Letters From Zora…” should be the one. Calloway is the complete package in this performance. You feel Hurston’s tears when she loses her mother. You laugh with her when she mocks Wright and other black male writers. You cry when you learn that Hurston works as a maid near the end of her life.

For a great writer like Hurston, “Letters From Zora…” reminds us to never forgot our history. It is our celebration to her.

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