- Choreographing the Folk: The Dance Stagings of Zora Neale Hurston
Looking for the next critical work in Hurston scholarship has become a steady pleasure in the academy, since for three decades Zora Neale Hurston was a creative and shaping force in African American fiction and cultural studies. Complicated, unpredictable, and always the American iconoclast, Hurston has also become a legendary artist and scholar in the complicated racial tapestry of American modernism. Now, thanks to Anthea Kraut, we have the hitherto missing history of Hurston's choreographed staged productions. This book is in part possible because with the publication of Hurston's Go Gator and Muddy the Water (1999), we now have the original scripts of her hitherto missing "Performance Pieces," gathered while she worked for the WPA, and actually used in these staged productions. Yet even with this folkloric record now available, it still has not been clear just how involved Hurston was in theorizing, choreographing and staging black performance. An experienced anthropological fieldworker and Vodou adept, Hurston was particularly qualified to observe, record, write, and choreograph authentic black stage performances. However, as Anthea Kraut so ably reveals in her Choreographing the Folk: The Dance Stagings of Zora Neale Hurston, it was an incredibly complicated task, one rarely understood, and one for which she almost immediately lost authorial credit.
A Northwestern University-trained dance historian, Kraut focuses mainly on Hurston's dance productions, revues, and work with the Bahamian dancers. The account that emerges uncovers the intense commercialization of black folk productions in the 1930s, Hurston's subsequent conceptualization of her own work as an intellectual and aesthetic corrective to the increasing inauthenticity of these productions, and the "strategic negotiations" or artistic compromises forced upon her by the difficult racial terrain. And as usual, the other complicating factor was her notorious white patroness, Mrs. Charlotte Osgood Mason, who not only "owned" some of the material, but who funded some of the productions. A fascinating picture of black stage production in the 1930s emerges from Kraut's account, as well as from the hitherto missing account of Hurston's dance choreography legacy.
Along with a most careful theorizing and contextualizing of Hurston's conception of the "folk," Kraut also impressively restores the missing story of Hurston's most notable stage production, The Great Day. This history-making revue contained songs, rhythms, and movements arranged around a single day in a railroad work camp in rural Florida. It dealt with women, daily work patterns, courtship, and social performances. The revue began with work songs, laying rail, movement-oriented children's games, jook-joint performance, blues singing, social dancing to piano arrangements, guitar music, recreational game songs, an animated open-air sermon, and rousing spirituals. It all culminated in the dynamic and spectacular Bahamian fire dance. Hurston also layered her script with folk idioms, and other linguistic and culturally expressive forms denoting the authenticity of this distinctly Southern/Caribbean group. It was a refreshingly transnational and U. S. Southern conception of African diaspora, in which Hurston tried very hard to mobilize a rhetoric of "authenticity" in the face of the "primitivist" expectations of both her black and white audiences. Kraut's carefully researched account of Hurston's several productions of The Great Day, its extant programs, script drafts, research accounts, sound recordings, and audience responses is impressive. So too is her realistic account of how the audiences nevertheless tended [End Page 200] to consume it all within prevailing primitivist stereotypes, the persistent legacy of the minstrel show, and current popular shows like Fast and Furious. These factors, along with Hurston's black-and-white, mixed-caste dancing, Kraut explains, rendered much of her "rhetoric of authenticity" invisible to the audience. It was a tremendously successful artistic success and most reviewers considered it carried off with verve and spontaneity. However, this did not translate into healthy box-office receipts, much to the dismay of Mrs. Mason. By 1933, Kraut tells us, much of Hurston's original work was pirated and copied by Hall...