Zora Neale Hurston’s gripping Their Eyes Were Watching God is a staple of African American literature. The story of Janie Crawford, a woman who grows from a teenager bending to the whims of those around her, to a confident and defiantly clear-eyed woman, Hurston’s 1937 novel has gone from reviled during its initial release, to buried for decades afterward to now one of the most essential works of 20th century American literature.
And at the Wow Cafe Theatre, Zora’s spirit and words live again. create, Inc and director Marishka S. Phillips present Their Eyes Were Watching God at New York City’s oldest collectively-run theater. The work is being brought to the stage in New York for the first time in decades and this production features a talented ensemble of actors; including Jennifer Russie Burks, De’Marcus Woods, Sawandi Wilson, Kimberlee Monroe, Kellee Fuller and Lauren Marissa Smith giving an emotionally raw performance as Janie.
Smith captures Janie’s passive youth, and the pain that the teenage girl feels as she’s chastised by her grandmother, Nanny, and encouraged into a loveless marriage with Logan Killicks (Michael Oloyede.) It is the first of many incidents in her life that suppress Janie’s spirit for the sake of appeasing those who believe they know what’s best for her; from Nanny, to Logan to her ambitious second husband Jody (Woods.) And Smith manages to navigate the sometimes-harrowing subject matter with vulnerability and grace; the joys of new love and the pains of disillusionment are all laid bare in her eyes. As Janie’s soul and the narrator, Burks is the perfect internal complement to Smith’s external angst, charmingly delivering subtext for the audience that doesn’t undermine the nuances of the other players’ more literal interactions. The actors leave a part of themselves on that stage throughout this story of pain and purpose.
In understanding Janie’s need for self-actualization, director Phillips has tapped into the heart and soul of Hurston’s work. Dedicating the entire production to the spirit of Zora, she’s been able to achieve her own ambitions as a director by staying true to both her vision and the works of one of the most beloved writers in the canon. Their Eyes Were Watching God is as necessary now as it ever was, and in New York City, this stage play is a much-needed presentation and a stellar production.