Spunk: Tales in the key of the blues

Categories: Theater
Photo by Rich Ryan
Austene Van, T. Mychael Rambo and Jevetta Steele.
Welcome back, Penumbra.

Nearly a year after its last show, Penumbra Theatre roared back Thursday night to an eager crowd thrilled to have their favorites back home. The company returned with Spunk, George C. Wolfe's adaptation of three stories by Zora Neale Hurston.

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Director Patdro Harris assembles a remarkable cast, led by Jevetta Steele and Dennis W. Spears, who take on the roles as main storytellers in the music-fueled show. The bluesy score, crafted by Chic Street Man, propels each story along and provides some connection among the three.

There are also some thematic links. As the blues are used as a musical backdrop, the stories are also mainly about men and women looking for, and sometimes failing in, love. It can be played for laughs, such as in the middle sequence. In "Story in Harlam Slang," two pimps (which, in this context, means men who trade loving for money) battle for the affection of a single woman, who they hope will at least provide a hot meal, some liquor, and money for their bed. 

The pair, played by Mikell Sapp and T. Mychael Rambo, strut like peacocks. They look like them a bit as well, decked out in colorful zoot suits and matching fedoras. The two lay it on thick at every turn, jostling with each other even as they fail miserably on the job.

The bookend pieces are the real meat here. Each one looks at marriages on the rocks but with completely different vibes and outcomes. In both, the couple is played by Austene Van and Keith Jamal Downing. Van plays two riffs on similar characters, each one strong and caring no matter the situation. Downing plays contrasting characters. His first, the evil Sykes, offers no chance for redemption, just survival for Van's character, Delia.

The later story, "The Gilded Six-Bits," offers a more involved take. In this case, Van's character is at fault, but the story stretches in a different direction as the two slowly work through the tough times to find joy on the other side.

The company, along with the band, do a fine job throughout. You can feel the thrill that these actors, many Penumbra veterans, have on returning to the stage on Kent Street. It's an infectious vibe that quickly spreads to the audience, letting everyone have a good time.


Through April 7
Penumbra Theatre
270 N. Kent St., St. Paul
For information, call 651.224.3180 or visit online.

Location Info


Penumbra Theatre

270 N. Kent St., St. Paul, MN

Category: General

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