• Cristee Cook

'The Golden Bench of God' is a rarely seen snapshot of Zora Neale Hurston's dynamic life

By Cristee Cook


Continuing their 25th anniversary season, Dallas’ Soul Rep Theatre is presenting SOUL-O-SHORTS. The filmed play series features 6 world premier short, solo performances. The project was created by a dynamic team of local playwrights, directors, dancers, and cinematographers, and explores the beauty and struggle of Black men, the gift of children and their imaginations, and even stories about notable historical figures: namely, James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston, Hattie McDaniel, and Nat Turner.


Dallas Art Beat is featuring a short Q&A with each of the artists behind the plays. For the third installment, we spoke with Chris Herod (Playwright) and Anyika McMillan-Herod (Actress, ZORA) about The Golden Bench of God. The play is a snapshot of Zora Neale Hurston at the end of her life. Hurston was an American author, anthropologist, and filmmaker. She portrayed racial struggles in the early-1900s American South and published research on hoodoo. The most popular of her four novels is her 1937 publication, Their Eyes Were Watching God.

Soul Rep Theatre's production of The Golden Bench of God for SOUL-O-SHORTS is directed by Dee Hunter-Smith.


What is the inspiration behind this project?


AMH: This performance is my full circle Zora moment: Most of my artistic friends know how the works, the woman, the genius that was Zora Neale Hurston has inspired and shaped my own artistry. I fell in love with her words and all she represented as a writer and unapologetic keeper of Black stories when I was in high school.


My junior year one woman show at Prairie View A&M University, was an original adaptation of her autobiography, DUST TRUCKS ON A ROAD, that I called "Conversations with Zora" and would perform just a few years later to critical acclaim at Soul Rep's 2nd Annual New Play Festival as a young twenty-something.


Zora has always been portrayed as the Zora of "The Harlem Renaissance" era -- all sass, conjure woman of words, cultural anthropologist full of adventure, best friend of Langston Hughes, and a woman of undeniable brilliance. But this is not how her story ended. She died sick, struggling, penniless and forgotten by many - including Langston.


This is the Zora I get to portray now - a genius at the end of her life. I feel like I'm finally old enough to embody her vastness, her colors, and her pain.


CH: I wrote the play for my wife, who loves Zora Neale Hurston. I wanted to challenge myself and capture Zora at a point in her life that has rarely been dramatized.

Anyika McMillan-Herod as ZORA in "The Golden Bench of God" by Chris Herod. Presented as part of Soul Rep Theatre Company's SOUL-O-SHORTS, streaming now through May 31, 2021. | Photo courtesy of Soul Rep Theatre Company

What positive changes have come out of the pandemic time in regard to your work - creating what is traditionally live performance for a virtual audience?


AMH: I believe some of my strongest work individually and collaboratively has bloomed from these unprecedented times. I intentionally embraced the required "pivot" that has empowered and expanded my artistry. This has truly been an exciting time to create, produce, perform, and tell stories that are close to my heart. SOUL-O-SHORTS has truly been a labor of love for our company and a celebration of our individual and collective strength and artistry.


CH: Stillness. Quiet focus on those things that are most important.


Why do you think this story is important to tell now?


CH: I don't write that often, but I jumped at the opportunity to tell Zora's story, particularly at a time when it seems Black voices are being heard.


AMH: In a good year, I get to wear my actor's hat at least once. I am so thankful for the opportunity to share this side of Zora's story, particularly in these times.

What’s sustaining you right now?


AMH: My family, my spirituality, my art, and a cocktail of magnesium, melatonin, and ashwagandha when sleep becomes a challenge or other stressors that come with these unprecedented times.


CH: My family and my faith.


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SOUL-O-SHORTS -- Written, Directed, and Performed by Soul Rep Theatre company members, is now streaming through May 31, 2021. For tickets, visit: https://www.showtix4u.com/event-details/51010.


View the trailer on Soul Rep Theatre's YouTube channel.


Follow Dallas Art Beat's interview series for SOUL-O-SHORTS here: https://www.dallasartbeat.com/all-news/categories/series



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