*When you hear actress Vanessa Bell Calloway over the phone, and you’ve seen her face in films like “What’s Love Got To Do With It,” and on stage in the original “Dreamgirls” and on the small screen in series such as “Hawthorne” and Showtime’s “Shameless,” you will immediately think, you sound just like you look.
It is this comment that opened the interview between Calloway and EURweb Associate and sister site editor, DeBorah B. Pryor, who interviewed the star about her return, by popular demand, to the critically acclaimed role of Zora Neale Hurston in LETTERS FROM ZORA for a limited run beginning May 10 through the 18 at The Pasadena Playhouse in Pasadena, California.
Through the dramatization of personal letters, LETTERS FROM ZORA explores Hurston’s controversial views on integration, segregation and social justice; showcasing a life that was filled with artistic triumphs as well as abject poverty and self-doubt. The provocative multimedia production is the first play written by novelist Gabrielle Denise Pina, with a live, original music score composed by her husband, Ron McCurdy.
The production, which was directed by Anita Dashiell-Sparks, also features archival images (collected by Margie Labadie) which illuminate Hurston’s prose, her life, her distinctive array of friends and foes, and her unique view of a jazz-age world.
The production was initially performed at the Board Auditorium on the campus of the University of Southern California in March 2012 and produced by Vision and Voices, the USC Arts and Humanities Initiative. It was billed as a free, one-time performance; but when the capacity crowds filled the 1200-seat venue and had a waiting list of 300 people by the close of the performance, the vested parties knew it couldn’t stop there.
“This girl put her foot in this,” Bell Calloway says of playwright Pina‘s work. “And it was her first play.”
Vanessa recalls the playwright, her husband, friends, and even herself saying “I’ll pay for this, you pay for that,” in an effort to get the play up and running for its debut at the Pasadena Playhouse last August 15, 2013, following the successful USC turnout.
Now, she is thrilled that the Pasadena Playhouse is footing the bill.
There is no denying the level of enthusiasm, love and emotional investment the actress has for the production and for Zora Neal Hurston herself. She is clearly overjoyed at being asked to return to Pasadena Playhouse to bring Hurston’s words back to the stage.
“As an actor you dream of a role that you can embody, a character in whom you can become completely engrossed, a role that you wake up each morning excited to portray with dialogue that flows like pure poetry,” says Calloway. “For me LETTERS FROM ZORA is that perfect piece.”
As the sole performer in this production, Bell Calloway is on stage for an hour and a half, and had to memorize 30 pages of dialogue; a challenge she is thrilled to have surmounted.
“I have to slow myself down because I get so excited about what’s coming up next,” says the actress, who admits she even loves going to rehearsal. “I have to slow myself down to make myself stay in each moment because my heart starts racing because it’s just exciting.”
Pina calls LETTERS FROM ZORA an authentic, multi-sensory experience of an extraordinary woman who defied the social conventions of the day and lived a life of her own creation.
“The artistic fusion of music, history, and literary prose illuminates the resilience of the human spirit as well as Ms. Hurston’s philosophy of life and literature in her own words,” she adds.
Sheldon Epps, Artistic Director at The Pasadena Playhouse, is also excited about bringing the successful performance back and says, “The incredible audience reaction last summer to both Zora’s brilliant words and Vanessa’s moving performance immediately encouraged us to make a return engagement of this show a reality. I am thrilled that this imaginative evocation of the eloquent, humorous, and audacious spirit of Zora will be back on our stage once again.”
With a line around the block and a significant number of people being turned away at the final performance, Epps remarks, “I know that many who saw the show the first time will want to return, and I am so pleased that this upcoming run will provide the opportunity for those who missed it to have this wonderful theatrical experience.”
“They were gracious enough to invite us back, and now they’re producing …Hallelujah,” shouts Vanessa, who was humbled that the play, in its limited engagement last year at the Pasadena Playhouse, sold out each night. She recalls what Epps referred to earlier, how they had to turn away hundreds of people from the final performance, and is further humbled that the interest in the show’s return never ceased.
In understanding the feisty woman behind the name, Calloway reminds us that Zora Neal Hurston’s father was the mayor of Eatonville, the Florida town where she grew up. It was an all Black town, and this was life as Zora knew it to be. So when she did finally leave Eatonville and witnessed racism she was shocked.
This writer was amused to hear that in one of the letters Zora wrote around that time she stated, “How anyone can deny themselves the pleasure of my company is beyond me.”
It doesn’t get much more real than that!
In her research for the role Calloway learned of Hurston as a world traveler; and as someone who studied everything including different cultures and different religions. She was a proud, black woman, who Vanessa says was “very excited about black people.” The actress adds that Hurston “even measured peoples’ skulls so she could disprove the notion that we [black people] were less intelligent.”
In performing the role, Calloway says the dialogue just flows, she doesn’t even have to think about it. Her joy and her goal is just to connect with the audience so they can feel the elation that she is feeling.
“And you know the Harlen Renaissance was such a rich era, so when you hear about the Countee Cullens, and Langston Hughes and Dorothy West, it takes you back there, and just all the fun they had in Harlem.”
Vanessa says by the time she reads Hurston’s poem, “Contentment,” she is crying and the audience is crying.
I asked her how she keeps her emotions in check and she responds,
“I don’t. I go with the feeling. That’s what is so beautiful, we start at this place and we take you on this journey. I’ll never forget, when I came out of the theater last year, my good friend Loretta Devine came backstage; she was shaking and she was crying.”
Calloway says a lot of people come up to her crying after the show, “because I’ve been crying,” she adds.
Of course such a successful production won’t stop with its run at the Pasadena Playhouse. Calloway says that the team will be taking the show on the road; to waiting regional theaters across the country. She is especially excited about performing the show in intimate theaters off-Broadway.
Want to see more of this incredible lady and talented actress? Check out her WebTV series “In The Company of Friends.”
LETTERS FROM ZORA will play May 10 – 18, 2014, with a press opening night on Sunday, May 11 at 2:00 p.m. Single ticket prices range from $40.00 – $100.00. Limited VIP Packages including premium seating, post-show meet & greet with Gabrielle Pina, Vanessa Bell Calloway and Anita Dashiell-Sparks and light reception is available for $150.00 per ticket. VIP Package are available only on the following performances: Saturday, May 10 at 8:00 p.m.; Thursday, May 15 at 8:00 p.m.; Friday, May 16 at 8:00 p.m.; Saturday, May 17 at 8:00 p.m. and Sunday, May 18 at 2:00 p.m. . The Pasadena Playhouse is located at 39 South El Molino Avenue, Pasadena, CA 91101.
The performance schedule is Thursday and Friday at 8:00 p.m.; Saturday at 4:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m.; and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. Tickets are available online at www.PasadenaPlayhouse.org, by calling The Pasadena Playhouse at 626-356-7529 or by visiting The Pasadena Playhouse Box Office, Tuesday – Sunday from 12:00 p.m. until 6:00 p.m. during non-performance dates. On performance dates the Box Office is open Tuesday – Saturday from 12:00 p.m. – 8:00 p.m. and 12:00 p.m. – 7:00 p.m. on Sunday. Group Sales (8 or more people) are available by calling 626-921-1161. For more information, visit www.PasadenaPlayhouse.org.
DeBorah B. Pryor has authored more than 400 published articles covering entertainment features, reviews, and self help columns. As a communications specialist she has taught at UCLA Extension, The Fremont Centre Theatre, and for private organizations. She is a small business owner who presides over The Art of Communication: Public Speaking for the Private Person – which is also a CD. DeBorah is also an independent associate with LegalShield. Feel free to say “hello” to her at [email protected].