To bring to life the words of a seminal writer of the Harlem Renaissance is no small feat. The 21 short stories in Zora Neale Hurston’s Hitting a Straight Lick With a Crooked Stick reveal a writer early in her career, incorporating dialect and other language that may not easily translate to contemporary listeners’ ears. But Aunjanue Ellis brings more than 25 years of experience acting in TV and film—including The Taking of Pelham 123, The Help, “The Book of Negroes” and “Quantico”—to her first audiobook narration, and her performance of Hitting a Straight Lick smooths any barrier between historical tale and modern audience.
We reached out to Ellis about her experience narrating Hitting a Straight Lick, her own connection to Hurston and her love of books.
Tell me a bit about transforming Hitting a Straight Lick into an audiobook. How did you prepare, and what did you most enjoy about the preparation?
I read the stories and then re-read the stories. I would have to go over several passages over and over before recording. The enjoyment came from the reading. This collection has such electric, surprising writing. I fell in love with ZHurston all over again.
“This collection has such electric, surprising writing.”
Tell us about your personal connection to Hurston prior to narrating the audiobook.
Their Eyes Were Watching God was one of those books that shaped my understanding of what great writing is. So years ago, I tried to write a screenplay about Zora. I had no experience writing a screenplay and gave up on the project after months of trying. It is my hope that it gets done—the movie on her life. I may not write it but the world needs to see it. And actually, I played Zora in a film that Rodney Evans directed called Brother to Brother.
What was the most difficult part of bringing Hurston’s signature dialect style to life?
The difficult part is that it is dialect! I have to say it is the most difficult thing I’ve ever done. The director had to push me to finish toward the end because it was so hard, and I was exhausted. I wasn’t just reading. I was performing all those rich characters that Zora created. I had to find their differences, even if it was just hair’s breath. And the dialect is another language. So I had to approach it like I was speaking another language. There were words that are obsolete or arcane. And the way that it is written—graphically—it requires your eyes to work differently and more specifically. It was the hardest thing I have done as a performer.
“You have the voice of someone who adores you taking you on an adventure that you can only see in the matinee theatre of your mind.”
Was there anything you felt strongly about getting “right” as you narrated the work of such a definitive icon of the Harlem Renaissance?
Yes, that’s why it was so hard, because I wanted the dialect to sound as Zora heard it. Also, sometimes Zora would write the same character and also repeat plots in different iterations in several stories. I wanted to make sure though that the reader would hear them differently every time.
How does the experience of narrating an audiobook differ from other kinds of performance? What’s the hardest part of limiting your acting toolbox to just your voice?
I’m not good in recording studios! I’m usually a very amiable actor until it’s time for me to do ADR—that’s when you have to add or replace dialogue from scenes you’ve shot. I get very impatient, and do-overs bother me, AND it’s claustrophobic. So when I did this, it was ADR maximized. And I think you’ve hit in the question partly as to why it’s troublesome for me: I can only use my voice. There are no other tricks to use, because no one can see me. And also, I am alone. No scene partners. Just me and a taunting microphone. I have SO much respect now for actors who do this as a profession. Doing the book was incredibly and surprisingly difficult, but I had an immeasurable reward. I lived with Zora and the citizens of her great world for days.
What were you surprised to learn about the audiobook process?
I was surprised at how exacting it is. You can’t leave out or add words, which I do all the time when I perform in other mediums. You realize that the words are queen. You must perform them exactly how they are written. To not do that is to deny the listener the book.
As someone who holds a B.A. in African American studies, did you come to Hurston’s short story collection with any kind of expectations about her work? Did these short stories change your ideas of Hurston as a writer?
The first story in the collection, “John Redding Goes to Sea,” was one of my favorites. It is so supple and delicate to the ear. Zora has such a keen eye and ear to the myriad ways her characters express grief, longing and joy. She is utterly modern in that way. I was compelled to read more of her shorter work. It was like discovering a new writer. Everything I assumed and took for granted about her work was called into question.
What do you believe are your greatest strengths as a narrator? What is the most rewarding or coolest thing you get to bring to this experience through your reading?
I just didn’t want to embarrass Zora. So that was my strength: fear! It is an unparalleled motivator to not screw things up. And I had it!
What do audiobooks offer that a book can’t? And considering how much audiobooks are booming, why do you think we’re being drawn to this medium more and more?
Well, I’m a book NERD! I love everything about them. They are a fetish. The feel of them. The smell of them. The buying of them. Bookstores are my temples. So this is a complicated question for me. Telling a story is one of the first acts of love an adult gives to a child. You have the voice of someone who adores you taking you on an adventure that you can only see in the matinee theatre of your mind. My love for stories and reading has never strayed from this idea. I think this is the innate beauty and gravity of audiobooks.