By Mark Bennett | Tribune-Star Feb 23, 2017

The struggles and joys of people from decades ago can seem surprisingly relevant in the present.

Interactions of characters from biblical times, a Mark Twain book or a ’70s movie might neatly fit into 2017. Just change the clothes styles, lingo and technology, and it’s clear that people are still humans in need of footwear, bread and love.

That’s why Jeff Lorick believes a play based on stories of a novelist from the Harlem Renaissance era of the early 20th century can hit home with Terre Hauteans of all backgrounds in the 21st century. Zora Neale Hurston, who became an icon of African-American literature after her death in 1960, lived through the heartbreaks, hard times and recoveries depicted in “Spunk.”

In 1989, Tony Award-winning playwright George C. Wolfe adapted the play from Hurston’s writings.

Appropriately, Theater 7 chose “Spunk” as its debut production. The group has given Terre Haute an asset that is rare for a small Midwestern community — a year-round, racially diverse, professional theater company with a mission to bring the art form to people who may never have attended a play. They aim to entertain, enlighten and inspire audiences. “Spunk” delivers on that goal, said Lorick, director of the play that continues its two-weekend run tonight, Saturday and Sunday in the Indiana Theatre.

Harlem of the 1930s and Terre Haute in the 2010s may seem disparate. The characters and their ordeals from Hurston’s tales aren’t.

“That’s where most people connect with the piece,” Lorick said. “It talks about the human spirit being triumphant.”

It reflects Hurston herself. She had the knack of “walking into hearts,” according to the official Zora Neale Hurston website. The literary world recognized Hurston’s talent, and she entered rooms full of acclaimed writers with bold flair. Yet, she was shunned by some colleagues for her characters use of “backwoods” dialogue, Lorick said. Hurston never reaped financial rewards befitting her accomplishments, which include a masterpiece, 1937’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God.” Hurston’s final resting place didn’t get a headstone until 13 years after her death.

“Spunk” features disappointments and victories. Or, as the play’s synopsis puts it, the “laughin’ kind of lovin’ kind of hurtin’ kind of pain that comes from being human.”

In Act One, called “Sweat,” a washerwoman copes with betrayal until she triumphs over her abusive, estranged husband. Its setting is Eatonville, Fla., Hurston’s real-life hometown and the nation’s first black township. The second act, “Story in Harlem Slang,” involves two hustlers, targeting a domestic worker on the afternoon of her payday. Act Three, “The Gilded Six Bits,” is the saga of “a young couple in love, who find out that marriage can be difficult,” Lorick said. “But they find their way back in the end, after overcoming their struggles.”

The take-away from “Spunk” is universal. “It takes some tremendous amounts of tenacity,” Lorick said, “to overcome adversity.”

The presence of the Theater 7 cast on the Indiana Theatre stage represents a triumph. The ornate venue, built in 1922, at one time contained a segregated section in its upper balcony for “coloreds only,” as a sign stated. Lorick, the actors and crew talked about that long-ago, sad reality in the famed theater’s past, and the significance of Theater 7 kicking off its own history in that same building, with “Spunk.”

“When live theater came back to the Indiana, it was an African-American production that came to the stage,” Lorick said. And the show unfolds, he added, “absent of judgment, absent of hatred, but present of love and respect for one another.”

Last weekend’s first three performances yielded “overwhelming” responses, Lorick said, from crowds that were “very diverse, not only in race but in age.”

Obviously, the years and dates matter less than the stories.

Seeing ‘Spunk’

• The final weekend’s performances of “Spunk” by Theater 7 are scheduled for 7:30 p.m. tonight and Saturday, and 2:30 p.m. Sunday, at the Indiana Theatre at 683 Ohio Street in downtown Terre Haute. Tickets are $18 each and on sale at the Hulman Center box office, Ticketmaster.com at the door of the theater before the performances.

• “Spunk” celebrates Black History Month and is a collaboration with the Vigo County Public Library’s 2017 “The Big Read,” featuring Zora Neale Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God.”