‘Gleam’ puts new spin on Zora Neale Hurston’s ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God’

There’s a scene in the play Gleam based on Zora Neale Hurston’s iconic novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, where the central character Janie is locked in a passionate embrace with her husband, Tea Cake.

As she swoons in his arms, the couple is seen kissing and caressing before falling into bed onstage. But not long after, gunshots are fired. The audience will soon find out the fate of these two lovers.

Talk about high drama. From tense stand-offs to comic reverie, Gleam by playwright Bonnie Lee Moss Rattner, practically leaps off the stage with power, witty dialect, and poignancy.

WATCH A PROMOTIONAL TRAILER FOR ‘GLEAM’ HERE:

Currently playing in Baltimore at CENTERSTAGE, Gleam tells the epic story of one woman’s journey through love and loss to a life of meaning and self-fulfillment.

Through Hurston’s powerful saga, audiences come to know the yearnings of Janie; the men she loves; the rural world they inhabit; and the black Southern communities of the early 1900s that have influenced her worldview.

Published in 1937, but largely ignored for decades, Their Eyes Were Watching God is now a shining example of 20th century American literature and a crowning achievement in the varied career of Hurston.

Rattner penned an adaptation of Hurston’s iconic novel called To Gleam it Around, to Show My Shine while completing her master’s degree at Wayne State University in the ‘80s.

“I was overwhelmed by the beauty of Hurston’s language, the arrangement of the words,” the playwright notes. “To me, Zora Neale Hurston was the American Shakespeare. I knew I had to bring the novel to the public’s attention.”

The play debuted at Wayne State’s Hilberry graduate theatre in 1983. It garnered an award from the John F. Kennedy Center fund for New American Plays, and had its professional premiere in 1988 at the renowned Crossroads Theater in New Jersey.

The play was widely praised, with the New York Times calling its stage worthy dialogue, ”…so pure and lyrical, it positively stings and pierces the heart.”

Another series of readings and workshops followed in the late ‘80s and through the ‘90s, as theaters and producers pursued the play, according to Gavin Witt, production dramaturg for CENTERSTAGE.

“Over the years, a host of luminaries — including Samuel L. Jackson, Morgan Freeman, Leslie Uggams, Alfre Woodward and others — were drawn to the play as it continued to evolve. Wynton Marsalis composed a score.”

Yet financing and other issues kept the production from moving full speed ahead. Nearly 30 years after that first performance, Gleam is enjoying only its third full production.

It comes as CENTERSTAGE recently welcomed its new artistic director Kwame Kwei-Armah, an award-winning British playwright, director, actor, and broadcaster.

With his acclaimed play, Elmina’s Kitchen, which chronicled the African-Caribbean community in London, he became the first black Brit to have a play produced in the city’s famous West End.

Gleam’s current run at CENTERSTAGE features a talented cast of thespians, many of them relative newcomers.

Christiana Clark takes on the role of Janie, while Axel Avin, Jr. is Jody Starks, one of several men in her life. Veteran players include Thomas Jefferson Byrd, a Tony Award nominee known for roles in Spike Lee’s Get on the Bus and HBO’s Lackawanna Blues.

Bringing the production to life is accomplished playwright and director Marion McClinton whose credits include August Wilson’s King Hedley II on Broadway.

The Gleam design team also includes award-winning scenic designer David Gallo, who has numerous Broadway credits to his name, including the current production of Stick Fly.

Costume designer ESosa (a Project Runway finalist) has a resume that includes Broadway’s Porgy and Bess and Topdog/Underdog.

The show closes February 5, but with positive reviews, there’s already buzz about the possibility of Gleam going to Broadway.

Tickets for Gleam at CENTERSTAGE are $10- $55, and can be ordered online at www.centerstage.org/buffalo.