Discovering How Spunk Can Bring People Together

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Spunk at Kenny Leon's True Colors Theatre

Bernardine Mitchell in Spunk. Photo by Joe Phillips

For an actress, life experience adds to the depth of emotion that a performer brings to a play. While some actresses may admit that her experiences would allow her to go back and approach a play differently, few get the opportunity to do so. Bernardine Mitchell has such a chance with Spunk at Kenny Leon’s True Colors Theatre, and she interprets the play with a deeper life experience.

“I did it years ago when I was like a young girl, maybe 25, 30,” Mitchell states. With her experiences, she better understands the basic theme of the story in a way that she didn’t at that age.

She comments, “I feel that now that I am older and see with a different, mature eye, I see the survival.” Understanding that her character “speaks of all people’s joys and pains, their lows and their highs because she lived it,” Mitchell approaches the character with a stronger sense of awareness now that she has experienced more of life’s challenges.

Based on three short stories of the famed Harlem Renaissance writer Zora Neal Hurston (“Sweat”, “Story in Harlem Slang” and “The Gilded Six Points”), the drama by George C. Wolfe consists of three vignettes that incorporate a choral narrative with blues. The original production premiered Off-Broadway in 1989 to much critical acclaim, and its themes of pain, revenge and love resonate with audiences.

Hurston, who was a folklorist and anthropologist, recorded the history of African-American people and folklore in here stories. While most famous for the novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, her stories record the human condition in a way that connects to people from all walks of life.

Much of this play reflects the beauty and intricate characters of her short stories, but more than that it is a collection of stories that transcend time and race. “I think it is a timeless piece,” she comments. “It is simply about human beings surviving.”

Mitchell remembers that during her first encounter with the play, the cast and theater staff were amazed with the response that the show received from a mostly older and white audience during a talk back session.

Atlanta Theater, Kenny Leon's True Colors Theatre

Tawana Lael and Bernardine Mitchell in Spunk. Photo by Joe Phillips

“When I did it 20 years ago, at Indiana Rep, they were trying to get more of their black clientele in the theater and started doing black theater,” Mitchell remembers. She goes on to explain that during the talk back after one performance the audience asked, “Please don’t call this a black show. We lived that way too. This is a cultural play; we had to survive.”

For that audience the show represented their own struggles during the depression, and for Mitchell, the show continues to have the same significance to members of our own society today. Whether it is someone struggling to find work or wrestling with the social and racial issues we face, the stories hold truth that can point us in the right direction. They can help bridge the differences between us.

“We don’t need to keep separating things. We should know better by now, especially in the theater,” she explains. “And, the theater is to tell the truth, which is that we know the things that divide us and polarize us. But, the theater brings us to the knowledge of truth and brings us together.”

Like the audience 20 years ago, Atlantans will find a piece of art that will help heal our wounds and give us hope for tomorrow by showing us where we have been. Through its use of music (especially Blues) and its characters, audiences can find empathy and understanding that everyone has the same basic need: to survive.

“We are just going to have a great show. The story is very poignant; it goes straight to your heart,” Mitchell states. “Come enjoy the memory and know that we have moved forward; remember that we were in one place and remember now that we have moved on to somewhere even better and greater in our lives.”

Mitchell plays in Kenny Leon’s True Colors Theatre’s production of Spunk at the 14th Street Playhouse in Midtown Atlanta. The production opens September 20, 2013 (previews begin Spetember 17) and runs through October 13, 2013. For tickets and more information, please visit the theater’s website or call 1-877-725-8849.

By: Kenny Norton