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Drexel’s Writers Room Kicks Off ‘NEA Big Read’ With Drummers, Dance and a Poetry Slam

September 19, 2016

Zora Neale Hurston in 1936, the year she published "Their Eyes Were Watching God."
Zora Neale Hurston in 1937, the year she published "Their Eyes Were Watching God."

Zora Neale Hurston famously wrote her celebrated novel “Their Eyes Were Watching God” in just seven weeks while on a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1937. Now, 79 years later, Drexel’s Writers Room will honor Hurston’s life and legacy during a seven-week celebration after receiving an “NEA Big Read” grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Writers Room — a College of Arts and Sciences initiative within the Dornsife Center for Neighborhood Partnerships, an urban extension center in West Philadelphia’s “Promise Zone” — has partnered with community residents and organizations to celebrate Hurston and encourage the reading of her most beloved work.

Even though she was rediscovered in the ’70s, as an African American woman and a genius, Hurston still doesn’t get as much attention as she deserves. The book was chosen because of the work of Carol Richardson McCullough, Writers Room Advisory Committee chair, who has long-admired Hurston.

“I love the poetry of her prose and the way Hurston captures her characters’ voices,” said McCullough. “I read ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God’ right after undergrad as a good story. Now, after experiencing 40 more years of life, I can appreciate the greatness of the story — what Janie went through. I respect the way she stood up and kept going. Even though people tried to squash her, she wouldn’t let them.”

Drexel students, faculty, staff and neighbors will attend and help put on the various events during the festivities.

 “The focus of the festival is to see what people make in response to Hurston and we’re excited that these responses are going to take so many forms,” said Kirsten Kaschock, assistant director of Writers Room and assistant teaching professor in the College of Arts and Sciences “This allows us to work with professors, chefs, librarians, dancers, artists and writers.”

As previously reported in DrexelNow, Writers Room was announced as the recipient of the prestigious NEA Big Read grant in May. Director Rachel Wenrick, associate teaching professor in the College of Arts and Sciences and Kaschock, spent the summer finalizing the programming with Carol Richardson McCullough, Writers Room Advisory Committee chair and community member.

Banner for the Zora Neale Hurston festival.

“During Welcome Week, I got to talk about the festival and the book with incoming students,” said Wenrick, “and Devin Welsh, an English major, said, ‘It isn’t a coming of age story, exactly, but it’s a story about discovering identity, which seems especially relevant to me now.’ So we’re hoping the NEA festival will do the same for Writers Room: It will let more people on our campus and in our community know who we are, and know the work we do with students and neighbors.”

The festivities will officially begin on Sept. 22 with a keynote address by Cheryl A. Wall, PhD, Board of Governors Zora Neale Hurston Professor of English at Rutgers University. After the event, which will be held at the Mandell Theater at 5 p.m., attendees will be encouraged to participate in a New Orleans-style second-line parade featuring the West Powelton Drummers. The parade will make its way through Drexel’s campus and the Powelton Village and Mantua neighborhoods to the Dornsife Center where there will be a free collaborative show with Darla, a progressive funk band composed of Drexel students and alumni.

Recordings of that parade will be made public on Sept. 23 during an event hosted by writer and audio engineer Nelson Eubanks of Melodious Thunk Productions and Cyrille Taillandier, associate teaching professor in the Westphal College of Media Arts & Design. The nature of field recordings, which were used by Hurston during her anthropology and literary career, will be discussed. The parade will be recorded by Melodious Thunk and Drexel’s Mad Dragon Music Group.

A four-week workshop will begin on Sept. 27 and use “Their Eyes Were Watching God” as source material for creating performances. Participants in “Tania Isaac's Open-Notebook Dance Workshop,” hosted by the Caribbean-American choreographer Tania Isaac, assistant professor in the Westphal College of Media Arts & Design, will create small performances of movement, theater and voice using Hurston’s narrative and their own stories. The workshop will be held once a week but the installation in Drexel’s Van Rensselear Hall will be open each day to the public, who can also contribute. At the end of the workshop, a final presentation will be given on Oct. 29 to show the passage from the original text to its final re-interpretation in performance.

On Sept. 29, a special version of the Painted Bride Quarterly’s legendary poetry slam will be held at the Pen & Pencil Club. Hurston’s language will be used as prompts in the writing improve game. Painted Bride Quarterly’s co-editor Kathleen Volk Miller, co-director of the Drexel Publishing Group and teaching professor in the College of Arts and Sciences, will host the night’s events, which will include the improv session and a series of readings.

A postcard made for the Zora Neale Hurston-themed zine Writers Room will compile.

A writing and drawing workshop will also be held on Oct. 4 at Writers Room at the Dornsife Center. Offered by Valerie Fox, a teaching professor in the College of Arts and Sciences, participants will discuss and write in response to Hurston’s work. The pieces will be collected for publication in a zine put out by Writers Room at the end of the festival.

A special soul food culinary workshop will be held on Oct. 11 to offer a taste of the Southern food and traditions common in early 20th-century Florida, where “Their Eyes Were Watching God” takes place. Held at the Culinary Literacy Center of the Free Library of Philadelphia, the hands-on cooking class will be offered by Drexel’s Culinary Arts Program in the Center for Hospitality and Sport Management (HSM) and will feature Chef Brian Lofink ’03 (Sidecar Bar & Grille, Kraftwork, Kermit's Bake Shoppe), Dornsife's Community Chef in residence; Amanda Abene ’15 (Joe Coffee) and Chanda Rice, who frequently holds cooking classes at the member involved with HSM.

The food created in the culinary workshop will be sampled that night at a panel discussion titled “Zora Neale Hurston: Portraying and Modeling the Trickster Figure in the African American Diaspora.” Eva Thury, PhD, associate professor in the College of Arts and Sciences, and other literary experts will discuss Hurston’s contributions to culture and literature as relevant to contemporary efforts at transforming our society.

“To Be There and Hear It All: Audio, Documentary and Adaptations on Hurston,” a salon-style multimedia book discussion, will be held on Oct. 21. Hosted by André Carrington, PhD, assistant professor in the College of Arts and Sciences, the event will discuss the ways Hurston’s life and works have been portrayed in various forms of media.

As you can see, a lot of activities and opportunities for creative expression will be available during those short seven weeks. A closing party will be held on Nov. 1 to show what has been written, filmed and recorded as part of Drexel’s NEA Big Read grant.

For more information and times for the events, visit the websites of Writers Room and the NEA Big Read.