Annual festival honoring writer Zora Neale Hurston invigorates Central Florida Jan. 23-31

Eatonville renaissance

Photo of Zora Neale Hurston in Eatonville from the Lomax Collection, courtesy Library of Congress
Photo of Zora Neale Hurston in Eatonville from the Lomax Collection, courtesy Library of Congress

In celebration of the 125th anniversary of the birth of one of the most beloved African-American writers and folklorists of the 20th century, the annual Zora Neale Hurston Festival of the Arts and Humanities (aka Zora! Festival, presents cultural programming that honors the historic heritage of Eatonville, the Central Florida town the pre-eminent writer once called home.

Hurston, author of celebrated books Their Eyes Were Watching God, Mules and Men and Tell My Horse, grew up in Eatonville, the oldest incorporated African-American municipality in the United States; she returned to Florida after her time as part of the Harlem Renaissance and as a WPA writer. Her prose captures the cultural vibrancy of her childhood hometown and serves as a historical snapshot of a community in which black individuals could live as they pleased. She later dedicated herself to anthropological fieldwork, recording and collecting the oral history and folklore of black America.

The festival honoring her legacy is now in its 27th year. Presented by the Association to Preserve the Eatonville Community from Jan. 23 through Jan. 31, the festival now expands beyond its historic epicenter, with events at both Rollins College and the University of Central Florida. The festivities span an entire week of lectures, exhibits and an educational conference featuring prominent academics, historians, artists and community leaders sharing their insight on the author.

The UCF Art Gallery presents an exhibition titled The Encounter: Baalu Girma and Zora Neale Hurston, featuring the works of Eric Gottesman, Rachel Simmons and several other contemporary artists. The show presents a fictional interaction between Hurston and assassinated novelist and journalist Baalu Girma and ponders the shared heritage of African diasporic cultures. The installation is a collaboration between Gottesman, the UCF School of Visual Arts and Design and Rollins College, and runs through Feb. 18.

"The legacy of Zora Neale Hurston, and her home town of Eatonville, presented itself as an exciting opportunity to learn about the African-American history of Central Florida and perhaps consider this subject within the racially charged context of today," says UCF Art Gallery director Yulia Tikhonova. "I am very excited to be a part of this nationally regarded event, and to articulate my vision for our gallery as an essential contributor to the cultural dialogue in Orlando and in the state of Florida."

The UCF Art Gallery also presents a special series of lectures and performances centered around the exhibition extending well beyond the dates of Zora! Festival. This multi-institutional and multi-disciplinary series includes artist talks, lectures by both UCF and Rollins professors and excerpts from the play Division: The Trayvon/Jordan Project directed by John DiDonna in collaboration with Valencia College students.

In the spirit of advancing Hurston's mission, the festival's academic conference component is expanded into a full day of special educational programming. Within the framework of reflection upon Hurston's global legacy, the conference aims to analyze the shared heritage of the African Diaspora. Of the back-to-back scholar-led panel discussions, research presentations and academic lectures, the one that truly presents an opportunity for firsthand insight into the author takes place at 9 a.m. Friday, Jan. 29. "In Conversation: The Zora Neale Hurston I Remember," presents a panel discussion with Hurston's niece, her nephew and a childhood friend, all interviewed by Ben Brotemarkle, executive director of the Florida Historical Society.

"Our goal of the conference this year is to get more exposure within academic circles and get more students involved," says Julian Chambliss, associate professor of history at Rollins.

Other events well worth attending as part of the academic conference include a presentation called "So You Want to Restore a Valuable Historic Building? What You Need to Know" at the Matilda Moseley House Museum Project in Eatonville and a performance of the play Spunk and the Harlem Literati, directed by Be Boyd at the UCF Theatre.

Perhaps the most anticipated and unique event of this year's festival is planned for Thursday, Jan. 28. "Zora's Cosmos Mobile Tour: Eatonville and Beyond" takes participants on a bus tour of the locations detailed in Zora's oral history of Eatonville, Mules and Men. Tickets include a copy of Hurston's book, a Zora Neale Hurston poster and a complimentary fish fry lunch at the home of one of "The Pretty Johnson Girls."

Zora! Festival is best known for its Outdoor Festival of the Arts, scheduled from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Jan. 29-30. Thousands of visitors flock to this open-air fair of artisans, crafters, educators and community organizations. Attendees can browse the artistic creations of Eatonville residents young and old at the Zora Neale Hurston National Museum of Fine Arts, or see a production of Zora Neale Hurston: Storyteller at the historic Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church. There's also the Zora! Literacy Initiative book giveaway, a creative writing workshop for high-school students and the Zora! STEM Conference for middle- and high-school students. The festival culminates with live performances by legendary soul group the Isley Brothers with KEM.