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USC faculty collaborate on Pasadena Playhouse production

Vanessa Bell Calloway portrays Zora Neale Hurston at Bovard Auditorium in 2012. (Photo/Chris Roman/Daily Trojan)

When three USC faculty members agreed to share a conference stage in 2012, it turned out to be much more than a typical academic panel. The gathering became the catalyst for a lasting collaboration and an opportunity to more fully celebrate the life of renowned playwright Zora Neale Hurston in a new one-woman play opening Aug. 15 at The Pasadena Playhouse.

Letters From Zora features music by Ronald McCurdy, professor of jazz studies at the USC Thornton School of Music; a script by playwright Gabrielle Pina, lecturer at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences; and direction by Anita Dashiell-Sparks, assistant professor of theater practice at the USC School of Dramatic Arts.

The trio was initially brought together in a public forum sponsored by the USC initiative Visions and Voices to speak about Hurston and the impact of her life during the Harlem Renaissance as a famed author, playwright and anthropologist. The event ignited a spark among the artists, and a new play was born using Hurston’s letters as a platform and turning her powerful voice into an extraordinary story of the African-American experience in the 1920s.

Vanessa Bell Calloway, a stage, screen and television actress best known for her roles in the films Coming to America and What’s Love Got to Do With It, has the title role in the production, which offers a series of dramatic vignettes incorporating theater, musical ensemble and videography — “a multimedia presentation . . . that chronicles the complex and prolific life of Zora Neale Hurston,” Pina said.

Letters From Zora showcases a life that was filled with artistic and literary triumphs but stagnated by poverty and self-doubt. Her prose, life, distinctive array of friends and foes, and her singular view of the jazz age, permeate the production, Pina said.

After discussing the letters with Pina, who first saw them at the California African American Museum, “I immediately realized that this was a very powerful story that needed to be told,” said McCurdy, who teaches a course titled “The Music of Black Americans” at USC Thornton. The class focuses on the musicians, dancers and poets of the Harlem Renaissance, including Hurston, Langston Hughes, W.E.B. DuBois and Richard Wright, among others.

“Pina and I had many conversations on how to present Letters From Zora, knowing our challenge was to expose the tragedy and triumphs of a life that was lived to the fullest rather than present simply a history lesson,” McCurdy said. “This collaboration with Pina has also allowed me to transform my scholarship into performance art.”

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