Anthropologist and author Zora Neale Hurston had an ear for the African American dialect of the early 1900s.
Growing up in Eatonville, Florida, north of Orlando -- the country's first city incorporated by African Americans -- and then as an adult living in Harlem, Hurston was surrounded by the wordplay of neighbors.
People would "grab a hot," which means get a meal, or, "collar a nod," get some sleep.
Many of the expressions are gone, but they have a new life on stage at the Penumbra Theater's production of "Spunk," a stage version of three Hurston stories.
Hurston grew up in the Deep South, as African Americans were emerging from the effects of slavery and were creating a new identity.
Her mother died when Hurston was a girl, and her father, a carpenter and preacher, sent her to live with relatives. Hurston faced family barriers to getting an education but eventually found the means to attend Howard University, where she excelled on the stage and began writing articles.
It was at Howard that Hurston met like-minded friends who, along with her, would become important figures in the Harlem Renaissance.
Hurston's ear for language was intertwined with an interest in anthropology. She collected the language of African Americans in Florida and Harlem.
A few expressions are still in use.
"Beating up your gums" is talking to no purpose.
"Cruisin'" is parading down the avenue.
Hurston used the wordplay she heard among African Americans for her stories, according to Sarah Bellamy, Penumbra's associate artistic director.
Here's an example of some dialogue in "Spunk," from a character who is critical of how some men treat women.
"Now, now, now, there's plent men dat takes a wife lak dey uh joint of sugar cane. It's round and juicy an' sweet when dey gits it, but they squeeze an' grind, squeeze an' grind an' wring tell dey wrings every drop uf pleasure that's in 'im out. An' when dey satisfied dat dey wrung dem dry dey treats 'im jes lak dey treat a cane chew, throws 'im away."
Bellamy says the African-American dialect of that time was a tool for an oppressed culture not very far removed from slavery. The people created a code, a language, that was private, separate from the ears of the dominant white culture.
"The ways in which these groups decide to close doors, if you will -- even in the most public arenas -- by changing language just a bit, it betrays such incredible intelligence, agency, purpose to carve out spaces that belong just to them," said Bellamy. "I think that's a really beautiful thing, and certainly black folks in America have been doing that since our advent here."
When Zora Neale Hurston lived in Harlem, she wrote down the dialect of African Americans who had moved north. That dialect is on display in another scene from "Spunk," in which an elegant lady on a city street deals with two dandies who seek her attention.
There's a strong rural influence to the urban encounter.
"You skillets is trying to promote a meal on me. But it'll never happen brother, you're barkin' up the wrong tree. ... I wouldn't give you air if you was stopped up in a jug. I ain't puttin' out a thing. I'm just like a cemetery, I ain't puttin' out, I'm takin' in. Dig? I'll tell you like a farmer told a potato. Plant you now, dig you later."
Sarah Bellamy says some are offended by the language, and how African Americans are portrayed in "Spunk" and other Zora Neale Hurston stories.
They worry it perpetuates a stereotype of people who are uneducated, uncultured.
Bellamy defends Hurston's writing as true to a time and people exploring a new identity.
"Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, Sterling Brown, these were people who said, 'You know what, it matters where we've been and there's great, great jewels to be mined inside black folklore and culture. So let's work to preserve it,'" she said.
Besides writing, Zora Neale Hurston found work during the Great Depression with the Works Progress Administration. She collected the songs sung by workers in sugar cane, sawmill and railroad construction camps.
Hurston had a pleasing singing voice and recorded some of the songs herself. Eighteen of them are included in the audio collection of the Library of Congress, and can be heard online.
Attention to Zora Neale Hurston's writing has endured and even grown. However, in her lifetime she struggled to make ends meet. She died in poverty in a Florida nursing home in 1960 and was buried in an unmarked grave. Years later, novelist Alice Walker located the grave in Fort Pierce Florida and placed a marker on it.
The Penumbra's production of "Spunk" runs through April 14 in St. Paul.