One missed opportunity in Historyonics Theatre Company's clumsy Dust Tracks: Zora Neale Hurston's Stories (or Back to Walking on Flypaper) has a local angle: her friendship with St. Louis writer Fannie Hurst. Now forgotten, Hurst was a titanic presence in the fiction market in the first third of the century, commanding outrageous sums for "shopgirl" stories. When Hurston (1903-1960) was befriended by the more established author, she actually served as an informal chauffeuse/companion. I'd love to see Driving Miss Fannie, a droll and heartwarming duologue between two female chroniclers of so-called "marginal" characters. Their fiction, like their journeys, never took the shortest possible route. Both writers had plenty of drive and, on the page, direction.
Speaking of direction, there are some damned strange examples of it in Dust Tracks (directed and "created" by Lee Patton Chiles with ample use of Hurstonia). Centerstage is avoided, especially for pivotal scenes, which inexplicably take place at extreme stage right and left. Lighting is dim and scenes begin in darkness, though plenty of scene changes occur in half-light. As in many Historyonics' productions, script transitions are an ongoing problem; the usual expedient of having a performer announce a month, day and year is employed, along with snippets of sung spirituals that offer occasional uplift.
Hurston deserves much better. A black woman born in rural Eatonville, Fla., she worked like mad to attend Columbia University in the '20s, where she studied anthropology. Then she spent the next decade collecting folk tales from home and elsewhere, including Haiti. Hurston also moved relatively easily among the white establishment, which facilitated various grants and awards, including a Guggenheim fellowship. This controversial Harlem Renaissance heroine had the blithe self-confidence possessed by artists who explore a thoroughly new world. Her stories predate "magical realism," and her plots never fail to surprise. Chaotic and unpredictable, sure, but dull?
Alas, one of the recurrent problems with Historyonics' mandate is a drama deficit. Characters describe rather than act, and there's far more "tell" than "show." This is probably inevitable because of the punishing amount of original work produced -- some four shows a year, mostly cranked out by Chiles. However, the first third of Dust Tracks is promising, as Zora (an appealing Peggy Neely-Harris) tells stories from her small-town background and describes the preparations the family made for company (replacing the outhouse newspaper with the Sears-Roebuck catalog). Funny and engaging, these scenes include young Zora's delight in observing her neighbors' "lying sessions" and her ardent pantheism, which includes her conviction that the trees talk ("That pine has a mighty fine bass," she declares). After her mother dies (an eerie piece of staging that should have been centerstage), things go downhill dramaturgically. Among the longueurs are a dull re-enactment from Their Eyes Were Watching God, Hurston's most famous and compelling work. This lasts nearly a half-hour, thoroughly derailing any forward momentum. Why have the lovers but no animated pear tree, especially after the talking pine? However, the cast (Robert C. Goodwin, Cintia Sutton, Bryan Keith, Sharita Kyles Wilson and Alerica Lee Anderson) show versatility and gusto.