The ambassador to Morocco, a Florida congresswoman, two mayors, an Emmy-award winning actress, and a Tony-nominated Broadway star were among the prestigious in attendance for the silver anniversary celebration of the Zora Neale Hurston Festival of the Arts and Humanities held in Eatonville, Florida—“the oldest incorporated African-American municipality in the United States.”
A novelist, folklorist and anthropologist, Hurston is the town’s distinguished native daughter. And in her honor, a nine-day, multi-disciplinary gathering has attracted global Zoraphiles whose prodigious adoration has overwhelmingly sustained the event. “Celebrating Our Milestone: 25 years of Zora! Festivals” convened the last week of January, and included a plethora of intellectual panels bookended by poetics, comedy, drama, an outdoor street festival and an African elegance and black tie honorarium gala.
Congresswoman Corrine Brown served as honorary chair, but is a longstanding festival supporter who secures sponsorship, and in 2010 ensured that Haiti was an integral theme following its devastating earthquake. Brown’s political influence is credited for the presence of Ambassador Rachad Bouhlal, of the Embassy of the Kingdom of Morocco, who shared, “A photo of Zora Neale Hurston is in the Morocco airport, which is a testament that she is loved all over the world.”
A notable Harlem Renaissance presence, Hurston embodied deserved hubris and an indomitable spirit that served as a blueprint for survival during an era that suppressed Black women’s dreams. In 2003, the United States Postal Service granted her likeness the ultimate stamp of approval, and lapel pin replicas were Congresswoman Brown’s gift to thousands of attendees.
HURSTON’S BLACK HISTORY
The exclamatory Madame Zora would have loved the revelry, beginning with a Black History Month kickoff hosted by sponsor Onyx magazine in the rotunda of Orlando’s city hall. Opera singer extraordinaire Curtis Rayam, Jr. lifted his booming voice and sang during a program that recognized contributions extended by municipal officials and representatives from the Association to Preserve the Eatonville Community, Inc., under the leadership of President Marie-José Francois, M.D. and Mayor Bruce Mount.
Orlando mayor Buddy Dyer presented keys to the city, and while the evening’s programmatic agenda was necessary, dual midnight parties awaited. Wednesday and Thursday’s Round ’Bout Midnight Spoken Word and Stand-Up Comedy set the tone for an arts awakening in Eatonville reminiscent of Hurston—an effervescent wit and storyteller said to have tickled the hiccups out of all whom embraced her.
MUCH ADO ABOUT ZORA!
Emmy-winning actress Lynn Whitfield joined actor Avery Brooks onstage Friday night for a dramatic presentation, arguably the festival’s highlight. ZORA LIVES: An Evening with Zora offered an attentive audience a stirring portrayal of Hurston (personified by Whitfield), while counterpart Brooks weaved through song and baritone delivery with masterful finesse.
Michael Dinwiddy and Elizabeth Van Dyke, each seated parallel upon a stool, conceptualized and directed the program of readings set under soft lights. Whitfield and Brooks captivated the audience with whimsy and reverence through Hurston’s literary catalogue, including Dust Tracks on a Road, Mules and Men, Their Eyes Were Watching God, and Moses, Man of the Mountain. A series of notes titled A Life of Letters offered intimate insight into the pride and pain Hurston experienced through her storied life. Despite her untimely 1969 death, for a single evening among surviving relatives and friends, Zora lived.
HIGH NOTES & HATitude!
Friday invited busloads of students and “everyday folks” to party down Kennedy Boulevard. Saturday welcomed sun, and women donned hats and attitudes for the famed HATitude Brunch in remembrance of Hurston’s ubiquitous style, featuring fur-trimmed and feathered chapeaus.
Rows of white tents saluted each side of the street, where vendors sold select must-haves and youth from Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church performed Negro Spiritual and Hymns: Down Through the Years. An international food court pleased the palettes of an amassed crowd sprawled on the festival lawn in anticipation of a sold-out concert.
Famed R&B crooner Frankie Beverly proved he’s still got that fit body and the sultry vocal goods to lead Maze through a series of funk favorites including “Joy and Pain,” “Back in Stride,” “Happy Feelin’s” and the unifying hit, “We Are One.”
Dinner and an awards ceremony closed Saturday evening with red carpet sophistication. Voice and violin was offered by former Island Records recording star Miles Jaye, while Melba Moore hit high notes and held them long with an impromptu a capella tease. Referencing early career discrimination and her discovery of the Schomburg Center for Black Culture, poet, activist and scholar Sonia Sanchez accepted the Richard A. Long Award for long-term dedication to the Zora! Festival.
What began in 1989 with a table and a dream ended on a poignant note by Elizabeth Van Dyke, who closed the evening with class:
“I love Zora. I love my people. I love African-American people, and I love N.Y. Nathiri [director of multidisciplinary programs]. We have to just keep on doing what we’re doing… keep pushing and pushing that rock up a hill.”
Penny Dickerson is a Florida-based independent journalist. Her work can be viewed at pennydickersonwrites.com.