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Variety

Howard Alum Pays Tribute To Zora Neale Hurston in New Play, “Zora”

Zora Neale Hurston’s name lives on in many ways and as a cultural advocate, Lyn Dyson honored Hurston with a play celebrating her life.

The official flyer of the “Zora” play  (Photo courtesy of MMTI)

The Multi-Media Training Institution, founded by Lyn Dyson, is celebrating its 40th anniversary with a play entitled “Zora,” paying tribute to Zora Neale Hurston. 

The play, written by Laurence Holder and directed by Denise Hart, will run from Feb. 15 through March 30 and will be held at The New Cultural Cafe at Studio W.

Dyson said he wanted to produce “Zora” because he wanted to uplift Black women’s voices as a cultural activist. 

“Everybody has their part to play in the liberation and uplift of our people, and mine happened to be through arts. Every chance I get, I want to create a positive message… to show what was and what can be again,” Dyson said.

Hurston, born in Notasulga, Alabama, in 1891, embarked on a remarkable educational journey. In her adulthood, she attained an associate’s degree at Howard.

“She arrived on campus as a woman fully prepared to ‘jump at de sun,’ and Howard gave her the chance. Zora co-founded this very student newspaper and named it The Hilltop,” said Rae Chesny, resident scholar at the Zora Neale Hurston Trust. 

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Chesny explained, at Howard, Hurston also got accepted into the Stylus literary club and published her first short story “John Redding Goes to Sea,” in the Stylus. 

Breaking barriers, Hurston achieved a significant milestone as the first African American woman to graduate from Barnard College. Her legacy flourished as she authored several novels and an autobiography. 

Hurston emerged as a prominent figure in the Harlem Renaissance through her literature. As an anthropologist, she documented Southern culture during that transformative era. 

A revival of Hurston’s legacy came through the efforts of novelist Alice Walker, who purchased a headstone for Hurston after her passing and wrote an essay in 1975 that was then published in Ms. Magazine. Walker’s narrative brought new life into Hurston’s legacy, prompting publishers to print and distribute her novels again, according to zoranealehurston.com.

In this production, Tandrea Reeves plays the role of Zora Neale Hurston. Central to her rehearsal process, Reeves explains the importance of intensive research for character development. 

Outside of rehearsals, Reeves has generated a wealth of information regarding Hurston. This knowledge acquisition includes reading Hurston’s novels and books, delving into her life and relationships and exploring topics such as hoodoo, folklore and other customs that held Hurston’s fascination.

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As Reeves delves deeper into the complexities of Hurston and her lifestyle, she acknowledges the profound honor it is to portray such a distinguished figure.

“She never gave up…she was persistent, she was a leader, a storyteller. In a segregated time where we had no kind of voice at all, she made a way for herself through all of that,” Reeves said. 

Chesny believes many people pay homage to Hurston often because of the bold and unapologetic way she lived and her will to defy the constraints of any singular genre or field. 

“It is my hope that we, as a collective, will continue to pay tribute to her and her many contributions to this world,” Chesny said. 

Dr. Sandra Shannon, professor emerita of the Howard English department, says for students, especially Black women and other targeted groups of oppression, “Hurston’s persistence and refusal to accept conventional limitations is a timeless and universal source of empowerment and affirmation.”

“Zora” also features other artists from the Harlem Renaissance, such as Alain Locke, Langston Hughes and Richard Wright.

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Reeves expresses her enthusiasm for learning about the other figures highlighted in the play, eagerly anticipating the audience’s discovery of the relationships Hurston shared with individuals in her life. 

“It’s going to be something very different than what some have seen with Zora Neale Hurston because this is coming from her perspective. There are a lot of things that have happened with Zora Neale Hurston, from her rise and fall. She’s telling her story from her side of it and clearing the air,” Reeves said.

The play commemorates the opening of Ward 7’s only performing art space, The New Cultural Cafe at Studio W, located at 5073 East Capitol St. SE. 

On Feb. 17, The New Cultural Cafe at Studio W will serve vegan southern cuisine during the opening night reception. Following the play, there will be a post-play discussion. Tickets can be purchased through eventbrite.com; for those who prefer a virtual experience, there is an online viewing option upon sale of all in-person tickets. 

Copy edited by D’ara Campbell 

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