Carmaletta Williams of Grandview recently retired from Johnson County Community College after teaching English for 26 years. For more than a decade Williams has performed a one-woman show about Zora Neale Hurston, author of “Their Eyes Were Watching God.” She will play the role of Hurston in an episode of “Meet the Past” with Kansas City Public Library director R. Crosby Kemper III at 6:30 p.m. Feb. 25 at Central Library,KCLibrary.org. Plaza Branch library is screening the TV movie “Their Eyes Were Watching God” at 6:30 p.m. Feb. 24. This conversation took place at Williams’ home.
How did you become interested in Zora Neale Hurston?
Around 1996, a colleague at Johnson County Community College suggested I do a character for the Kansas Humanities Council’s “History Alive” series. I wondered who I might portray, and Zora said, “What about me?”
Zora talks to you?
Yes. I feel her spirit more than I hear her voice. I just try to channel that.
How do you approach a one-person show? It sounds daunting.
I don’t memorize a script. I have a bunch of vignettes, and depending on where I am and the vibes I get from the audience, I let Zora talk about what she wants to talk about.
She had a tragic childhood. Her mother was sick and well and sick, and when she was 13 her mother died. Her father remarried and sent Zora to boarding school and never came to see her, and she had to develop these survival skills that we hate to think about young people having.
Do you ever get tired of Zora?
No. Because she’s so much fun. She’s bodacious. She’s a free spirit. She lies.
She changed her birth date so often that when Alice Walker went and found her grave and had a huge monument built that says “Zora Neale Hurston, A Genius of the South, 1901-1960” — well, Zora wasn’t born in 1901, but she lied about her age so much, that was the date most people had heard. She was actually born in 1891.
Zora went to Haiti, she went to Africa, and she went to turpentine camps in the South. Wherever she went, she said she would pick out the biggest, ugliest woman there, because if she became her best friend people wouldn’t bother her.
She would sit on people’s porches and have them sing folk songs to her and sing with them until she had it down. That was how she learned the rhythm and sound of people’s speech, because when she wrote her stories she wanted readers to hear it exactly right.
“Their Eyes Were Watching God” is Hurston’s most famous novel. Which of her other books have you read?
All of them. Her books are so easy to get into, because they are about people that she knew. “Moses, Man of the Mountain” was about her father, who was a minister, and they had such a stormy relationship.
I think “Their Eyes Were Watching God” was such a success because it feels so true, because in it she is detailing different segments of her life. I think she would have loved to have been Janie. I think she created that character to express different parts of herself. Janie was beautiful. She had thick hair down her back. And she was really free-spirited in a way Zora wanted people to think of her as being.
How much of your “Meet the Past” performance will be about “Their Eyes Were Watching God”?
Very little. I think it will be more about Zora, because her life is as fascinating as any story she has ever written.
What can Zora teach us in 2015?
I think she was truly one of the first feminists.
She loved men, but she wanted to make sure that women knew that first you should not let men control your life. There’s a wonderful line in one of her stories about Delia the washerwoman who has a man who makes excuses for not doing much. She buys the house, and she buys the car, and he drives other women around in the car she paid for.
So two old men are talking about what happened to Delia’s marriage, because they used to love each other, and one says, “She let her husband turn her into a cane chew, and now he hates her for it.” It’s a great image, a cane chew, because at first the sugar cane is all sweet and liquid and nice, and then after you suck it dry, all that’s left are chewy fibers. It’s a very strong message that you don’t let people do that to you.
Other stories have messages about managing your own money and not being dependent on men. And about getting an education, no matter what it costs.
Everything she taught us is still valid today. They are lessons I want my daughters and granddaughters to take to heart.