Though she died in poverty with most of her books out of print, Zora Neale Hurston has been lately receiving her posthumous due. Her fiction back in bookstores, and many of her works have been successfully adapted for the stage (most notably in George C. Wolfe’s dazzling theatrical collage “Spunk”). In Thulani Davis’ new drama, “Everybody’s Ruby,” Hurston makes her Off Broadway debut as a character. The play, based on documentary accounts of the Harlem Renaissance author’s investigation into the murder of a prominent white Southern doctor by a married black woman, overflows with intrigue, sex, melodramatic suspense and racial and gender politics. Unfortunately, the playwright never establishes a dramatic through-line for her material, which becomes so complicated that even the devoted cast of Kenny Leon’s production can’t keep it straight.
With her crumpled “old Harlem hat” and portable typewriter in hand, Zora (Phylicia Rashad) returns to her home state of Florida to report on the case of Ruby McCollum (Viola Davis), the woman about to stand trial for shooting Dr. C. Leroy Adams (Beau Gravitte). Why would a relatively well-off black woman kill a powerful white man in broad daylight? Zora, who’s taken a freelance assignment from the Pittsburgh Courier, is hoping to put the answer into a book that will both restore Ruby’s human face and her own quickly fading literary reputation.
That it’s the early 1950s in a highly segregated backwater Florida town only makes Zora’s job that much harder. Whites refuse to speak to her about the matter, while blacks are afraid to say anything on the record. Not long after the judge denies her request to interview the prisoner, she calls her friend William Bradford Huie (Tuck Milligan), a white reporter with just the right hard-boiled attitude to help her uncover the facts.
Slowly, some of the larger pieces of the puzzle fall into place. Zora and William discover that Ruby and Dr. Adams had a longstanding sexual involvement, which began as a rape but turned into something more consensual. Ruby’s husband Sam (Bill Nunn), who had underhanded business dealings with the doctor, not only condoned but encouraged his wife in the affair. Only when she got pregnant by her lover does his greed give way to rage, but then it’s primarily out of frustration with being saddled with a white man’s kid.
Much of the action takes place through flashbacks, which are framed as Zora’s speculation on Ruby’s life. It’s not the lack of certainty, however, that makes the plot seem so confusing, but the way the playwright keeps shifting ground.
The story moves in a desultory manner from Zora to Ruby to the trial to the affair to the racketeering to Zora’s inability to write the book to her connection to Ruby — with each scene raising enough issues for a single play. Not only does character development get short shrift, but crucial plot points (such as Ruby’s baffling reaction to the doctor’s decision to break off the relationship) are lost in the shuffle.
Despite the dramaturgical disarray, Rashad does her best to anchor the play with her character’s grounded sense of moral purpose. Viola Davis, though haunting in her usual way, has difficulty in pinning Ruby down. While a murderer should always remain something of a conundrum, Davis leaves the woman too undefined to sustain our emotionally involvement.
The supporting cast takes on multiple roles, a challenge which most are up to , though a few are caught visibly groping for their lines. Otherwise, Leon’s production moves along fairly smoothly on Marjorie Bradley Kellogg’s minimalist set.
As both the play’s title and subtitle (“Story of a Murder in Florida”) suggest, the author has yet to find her narrative focus. Given the richness of her subject, one can only hope that she will continue to try to rein in this fascinating if chaotic constellation of historically resonant people and events.