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Staging Hurston's Heaven: Ethnographic Performance from the Pulpit to the Pews

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  04 May 2022

Rebecca R. Kastleman*
English and Comparative Literature, Columbia University, New York, NY, USA


It was May in Eau Gallie, Florida, and Zora Neale Hurston was headed to church. Shutting the door to her cottage near the shores of the Indian River, Hurston set out to join the local Baptist congregation, where she would hear a sermon delivered by its pastor, the Reverend C. C. Lovelace. Hurston had been pondering the question of how to represent the experience of a church service in a theatrical performance. “Know what I am attempting?” she had written to Langston Hughes a few days earlier, in April 1929. “To set an entire Bapt. service word for word and note for note.” Listening to Lovelace's sermon in Eau Gallie, Hurston admired how the preacher's oratory built seamlessly from a creation story into a fiery vision of divine retribution. She was so taken by the poetry of Lovelace's words that she transcribed his sermon in its entirety. This sermon later served as the centerpiece of the play The Sermon in the Valley, a work that testifies to Hurston's aim to render a Baptist service “word for word and note for note.” Like many of her plays, The Sermon in the Valley reveals the intimate entanglement of her ethnographic compositions and her writing for the stage.

Copyright © The Authors, 2022. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of American Society for Theatre Research, Inc.

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1 Hurston to Langston Hughes, Eau Gallie, Florida, 30 April 1929, in Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters, ed. Carla Kaplan (New York: Anchor Books, 2003), 140.

2 The published transcription first appeared in 1934 as “The Sermon” in Nancy Cunard's Negro Anthology: 1931–1933 (London: Wishart), 50–4; online at Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division, New York Public Library Digital Collections,, accessed 14 February 2022. Another version of the same sermon appears in Hurston's novel Jonah's Gourd Vine, also published in 1934. As Jean Lee Cole and Charles Mitchell note, The Sermon in the Valley is indebted to James Weldon Johnson's God's Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse (1927); Zora Neale Hurston: Collected Plays, ed. Cole and Mitchell (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2008), 191.

3 Hurston, “The Sanctified Church,” in Zora Neale Hurston: Folklore, Memoirs, and Other Writings, ed. Cheryl A. Wall (New York: Library of America, 1995), 901–5, at 902.

4 Hurston to James Weldon Johnson, Longwood, Florida, 8 May 1934, in Life in Letters, ed. Kaplan, 302.

5 Collected Plays, ed. Cole and Mitchell, 191.

6 In their “Introduction: Zora Neale Hurston—A Theatrical Life” to the Collected Plays (xv–xxxi), Cole and Mitchell address and work to remedy the historic neglect of Hurston's dramatic writing, which results in part from the fact that many of her playtexts were long presumed lost to the archive until they were rediscovered in the Library of Congress in 1997 (xv).

7 Lynda Marion Hill, Social Rituals and the Verbal Art of Zora Neale Hurston (Washington, DC: Howard University Press, 1996), 199. Hill further argues that Hurston's investments in the theatre shaped her writing in other forms (xx).

8 See Erika Fischer-Lichte, Theatre, Sacrifice, Ritual: Exploring Forms of Political Theatre (New York: Routledge, 2005), 38–45.

9 As Susan Hegeman has described, the new disciplinary protocols of anthropology that had emerged by the 1920s were “based on information gathered by ethnographers acting as participant-observers”; Patterns for America: Modernism and the Concept of Culture (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999), 27. These novel anthropological practices, embodied in the work of Bronisław Malinowski and Franz Boas, with whom Hurston studied at Columbia University, represented a stark departure from the work of scholars such as Harrison and Frazer.

10 Hurston to J. W. Johnson, Life in Letters, 303.

11 Valerie Boyd, Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston (New York: Scribner, 2003), 103.

12 Hurston, Dust Tracks on a Road: An Autobiography (New York: J. B. Lippincott, 1942), 124–51. Much of the criticism of Dust Tracks has rested on its omissions, from the publisher's censorship of controversial material to Hurston's own tendency to elide the effects of Jim Crow.

13 Gregory was the founder of the Howard Players as well as a key figure in the National Negro Theatre Movement.

14 Hurston's biographers inevitably confront her “lost” early years, particularly 1905–12, during Hurston's teens, when there is little trace of her life in the historical record. Hurston was selective about what she chose to reveal about this period, at times intentionally erasing these years from her own accounts. See Boyd, Wrapped in Rainbows, 57; Life in Letters, ed. Kaplan, 39.

15 See Biers, Katherine, “Practices of Enchantment: The Theatre of Zora Neale Hurston,” TDR: The Drama Review 59.4 (2015): 6782CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Brooks, Daphne A., “‘Sister, Can You Line It Out?’: Zora Neale Hurston and the Sound of Angular Black Womanhood,” Amerikastudien / American Studies 55.4 (2010): 617–27Google Scholar; Soyica Diggs Colbert, “Reenacting the Harlem Renaissance: Zora Neale Hurston's Color Struck,” in The African American Theatrical Body: Reception, Performance, and the Stage (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 91–122; Diamond, Elin, “Folk Modernism: Zora Neale Hurston's Gestural Drama,” Modern Drama 58.1 (2015): 112–34CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

16 Hurston's first work on Broadway comprised four sketches for the revue Fast and Furious in 1931, in which she also acted; Cole and Mitchell, “Introduction,” xxiii. Hill characterizes Hurston's pursuit of a theatrical career as her “driving ambition” during this period (Social Rituals, xix).

17 This argument builds on claims made by Cheryl Wall, who writes that “Hurston in the 1930s both theorized about and put into practice the concept of performance.” Wall discusses the centrality of performance to Hurston's ethnographies, arguing that she anticipated the work of contemporary anthropologists such as Richard Bauman by centering performance forms such as “storytelling and sermonizing” in Mules and Men. See Wall, Cheryl A., “Mules and Men and Women: Zora Neale Hurston's Strategies of Narration and Visions of Female Empowerment,” Black American Literature Forum 23.4 (1989): 661–80CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 664.

18 The name of this college in Durham, North Carolina is often abbreviated as North Carolina College, and today it is called North Carolina Central College; I use its abbreviated name. Hurston had been asked to start a drama program once before, at Bethune–Cookman College in Daytona Beach, Florida. Bethune–Cookman was at that time a junior college, and Hurston's 1934 appointment there lasted only one semester; the position at North Carolina College represented a step toward potentially more secure employment at a state-funded, four-year institution.

19 “N.C. College to Open Graduate Department,” Chicago Defender, 1 July 1939, 24; “Rialto Gossip: Notes on Plays and Playwrights, Also the Producers and Their Plans,” New York Times, 18 February 1940, §9, 1.

20 In 1939, Hurston also published her genre-defying novel Moses, Man of the Mountain, which reimagines the story of the biblical Moses. As Ernest Mitchell has shown, Hurston's views of religion were embedded in her political philosophy. In “Seeing the World as It Is,” an essay intended to serve as the first chapter of Dust Tracks (but suppressed by the publisher), Hurston discusses how Christianity gives rise to colonial violence. See Ernest Julius Mitchell II, “Zora's Politics: A Brief Introduction,” Journal of Transnational American Studies 5.1 (2013). Many thanks to Mitchell for generative conversations about Hurston and religion which sparked my initial research on this subject. Many thanks to Mitchell for generative conversations about Hurston and religion which sparked my initial research on this subject.

21 W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (New York: Oxford, 2007), 8.

22 Paul Laurence Dunbar, “We Wear the Mask,” in Lyrics of Lowly Life (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1896), 167.

23 Langston Hughes, The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes (New York: Knopf, 1994): “The Jester” (1925), 56–7; “Minstrel Man” (1925), 61; “The Black Clown” (1931), 150–2.

24 Hurston, “How It Feels to Be Colored Me,” in Folklore, Memoirs, and Other Writings, ed. Wall, 826–9, at 827.

25 Ibid., 828.

26 On Hurston's use of plural address, see Johnson, Barbara, “Thresholds of Difference: Structures of Address in Zora Neale Hurston,” Critical Inquiry 12.1 (1985): 278–89CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

27 Hurston, “How It Feels to Be Colored Me,” 826.

28 Hurston, “Characteristics of Negro Expression,” in Folklore, Memoirs, and Other Writings, ed. Wall, 830–46. Hurston's claim that drama is inherent to Black culture plays into stereotypes that figure Black performativity as natural and thus deny the practiced virtuosity of Black performing artists. For further discussion of the interpretive problems associated with this essay and their relation to Hurston's work in drama and anthropology, see Hill, Social Rituals, 1–8.

29 Hurston, Dust Tracks, 139.

30 Hurston, Heaven, in Collected Plays, ed. Cole and Mitchell, 90–3, at 90. Heaven was first performed in the year 1930 as one of the sketches included in the review Cold Keener.

31 Hurston, Dust Tracks, 144. The scene recounted in Dust Tracks took place in 1916, years before the 1930 performance of Heaven.

32 In discussing the erotics of Hurston's entry into theatre spaces, I draw on the work of scholars including Aliyyah I. Abdur-Rahman, Phillip Brian Harper, and Siobhan B. Somerville, who show how Blackness in the U.S. cultural imaginary is always already bound up with the concepts of sexual discipline and sexual aberrance. See Abdur-Rahman, Against the Closet: Black Political Longing and the Erotics of Race (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012); Harper, “The Evidence of Felt Intuition: Minority Experience, Everyday Life, and Critical Speculative Knowledge,” in Black Queer Studies: A Critical Anthology, ed. E. Patrick Johnson and Mae G. Henderson (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005), 106–23; Somerville, Queering the Color Line: Race and the Invention of Homosexuality in American Culture (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000).

33 Hurston, Dust Tracks, 143–6.

34 Ibid., 146.

35 Ibid., 147.

36 Ibid., 147–8.

37 Brown, Adrienne, “Hard Romping: Zora Neale Hurston, White Women, and the Right to Play,” Twentieth-Century Literature 64.3 (2018): 295316CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 304.

38 The iconography of the Klan gained renewed potency after the release of the film Birth of a Nation in 1915, a year before Hurston joined the theatre troupe. Additionally, Miss M——'s practice of applying red makeup has a theatrical analogue in the pejorative practice of redface performance.

39 Brown, “Hard Romping,” 297. Brown elaborates that Hurston represents such encounters as “occasions for imagining forms of intimacy that, rather than rendering difference invisible, can acknowledge difference as the difficult condition of encounter itself”; ibid., 299.

40 The novel A Florida Enchantment, coauthored by Archibald Clavering Gunter and Fergus Redmond, was published in 1891; it was adapted for the stage in 1896. Gunter and Redmond also coauthored the screenplay for the film version. See Somerville's remarkable analysis of A Florida Enchantment in “The Queer Career of Jim Crow: Racial and Sexual Transformation in Early Cinema,” in Queering the Color Line, 39–76.

41 The milieu of vaudeville was significant to the popularization of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas in the United States. As Somerville points out, casting the blackface actor Dan Collyer in the role of Jane explicitly links the stage production to the tradition of blackface minstrelsy; ibid., 61. The script of the stage adaptation of A Florida Enchantment has not survived.

42 Hurston, “Spirituals and Neo-Spirituals,” in Folklore, Memoirs, and Other Writings, ed. Wall, 869–74. This essay was first published in Cunard's Negro Anthology in 1934 (359–62).

43 Hurston, Mules and Men (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1935; new ed., New York: HarperCollins, 2008), 11.

44 The complete script of The Great Day does not survive. The significance of the “Conjure Ceremony” scene is explored in Biers, “Practices of Enchantment.”

45 Boyd, Wrapped in Rainbows, 230.

46 Hurston, The Fiery Chariot, in Collected Plays, ed. Cole and Mitchell, 221–6; Hurston, Mules and Men, 69–71.

47 As Robert Hemenway writes in his “Foreword,” “the classroom was too small a space for her talent or her temperament”; Life in Letters, ed. Kaplan, 1–6, at 5.

48 On the global circuits of Black performance, see Jayna Brown, Babylon Girls: Black Women Performers and the Shaping of the Modern (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008); Joanna Dee Das, Katherine Dunham: Dance and the African Diaspora (New York: Oxford, 2017); Paul J. Edwards, “Staging the Great Migration: The Chocolate Kiddies and the German Experience of the New Negro Renaissance,” Modernism/modernity Print Plus 4, cycle 3 (27 August 2019),, accessed 14 February 2022.

49 Kate Dossett's recent Radical Black Theatre in the New Deal (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2020) works to remedy this omission.

50 Locke, Alain, “Steps Toward the Negro Theatre,” The Crisis 25.2 (1922), 66–8Google Scholar, at 66–7.

51 Hurston's talks included a lecture on “Making a Negro Folk Theater,” delivered to the Carolina Dramatic Association on 7 October 1939, which was introduced by Prof. Frederick Koch, the founder of the Carolina Playmakers; “Drama Group Concludes Meet; Zora Neale Hurston Featured: Noted Negro Author Outlines Plans for Native Drama,” Daily Tar Heel (Chapel Hill, NC), 8 October 1939, 1–2. Hurston also delivered an address on “the background of Negro writing in the South” to the Freshman Friendship council at UNC on 6 November; “Miss Zona [sic] Hurston Addresses Freshmen on Negro Writing,” Daily Tar Heel, 7 November 1939, 4. An additional talk that was publicly announced, and which Hurston presumably delivered, was “The Negro and the Play,” scheduled for 17 January 1940 at UNC; “Zora N. Hurston Will Speak Here Wednesday Night,” Daily Tar Heel, 14 January 1940, 1, 4. Hurston also appears to have returned to deliver another lecture at UNC on 5 April 1940, after she had left for South Carolina, in conjunction with the presentation of Paul Green's play The Field God; “‘The Field God’ Will Be Staged Tonight at 8:30: Drama Festival Delegates Have Full Day Ahead,” Daily Tar Heel, 5 April 1940, 1–2.

52 “Drama Group Concludes Meet,” 1.

53 Bois, Du, “Krigwa Players Little Negro Theatre: The Story of a Little Theatre Movement,” The Crisis 32.3 (1926): 134–6Google Scholar, at 134.

54 Hurston to Shepherd, Durham, NC, [14 December 1939], Life in Letters, ed. Kaplan, 424–5, at 425.

55 Hurston, “The Rise of the Begging Joints,” in Folklore, Memoirs, and Other Writings, ed. Wall, 937–44, at 937. First published in American Mercury 60 (March 1945): 288–94.

56 Ibid., 938.

57 Hurston to Paul Green, Beaufort, SC, 3 May 1940, in Life in Letters, 458–9, at 458.

58 Hurston, “Sanctified Church,” 901. The essay was not published in Hurston's lifetime. It was to be included in a planned book on “The Florida Negro” that was never published; Folklore, Memoirs, and Other Writings, ed. Wall, 972.

59 Ibid., 902.

60 Ibid.; emphasis original.

61 Hurston, “Spirituals and Neo-Spirituals,” 873. Subsequent citations of this source are given parenthetically in the text.

62 Portions of this film, known informally as Commandment Keeper Church, have recently been restored by archivists at the Library of Congress, who have edited the film to include audio recording that had previously been lost. Excerpts are now available on Pioneers of African American Cinema (New York: Kino Classics, 2016), Blu-ray.

63 Daniel Eagan, America's Film Legacy: The Authoritative Guide to the Landmark Movies in the National Film Registry (New York: Bloomsbury, 2010), 315. The filmmakers shot four separate services: “a service on Friday night, May 17, a Saturday morning river baptism, a Saturday evening service, and Sunday services”; ibid., 316.

64 Not only does the film illuminate the connections between Hurston's ethnography and her performance practice, but the creation of the documentary theorizes those connections; see Wagers, Kelley, “‘How Come You Ain't Got It?’: Dislocation as Historical Act in Hurston's Documentary Texts,” African American Review 46.2–3 (2013): 201–16CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 204.

65 For example, Hurston is the only congregant shown wearing a hat inside the church; she also wears a top with a fancy collar, while the other women congregants wear dresses with a simpler cut.

66 Wagers identifies the congregant as Jones, who was “known for her prophetic powers”; “‘How Come You Ain't Got It?,’” 201.

67 Hurston notes of the church service that its “keynote is rhythm”; Hurston, “Ritualistic Expression from the Lips of the Communicants of the Seventh Day Church of God,” fieldnotes, Margaret Mead Collection, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, 2.

68 See Victor Turner, The Anthropology of Performance (New York: PAJ Books, 1988); Dwight Conquergood, Cultural Struggles: Performance, Ethnography, Praxis (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2013); E. Patrick Johnson, Sweet Tea: Black Gay Men of the South, rev. ed. (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2012).

69 Kraut, Anthea, “Recovering Hurston, Reconsidering the Choreographer,” Women & Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory 16.1 (2006): 7190CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 71.

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