April 25, 2002


Joy and Blues in Florida's Piney Woods


WASHINGTON, April 21 Five years ago an extraordinary cache of manuscripts by Zora Neale Hurston, perhaps the most important black female writer of the first half of the 20th century, was discovered in the Library of Congress. Hurston, who was most productive during the 1930's and 1940's, was a student of cultural anthropology and a collector of folk tales. As a novelist and short story writer, she was a chronicler of black life in the rural South, where she grew up.

Controversial in her time, and criticized by many black intellectuals including Richard Wright for perpetuating stereotypes, Hurston died in penniless obscurity in 1960. Her reputation was revived in the 1970's, largely by the writer Alice Walker, who recognized the authenticity of Hurston's character portrayals. Today, works like her 1937 novel, "Their Eyes Were Watching God," are widely read.

Less well known are Hurston's plays, which include "Mule Bone," written with Langston Hughes, which was presented by Lincoln Center Theater in 1991. The previous year, "Spunk," an adaptation by George C. Wolfe of Hurston's short stories, appeared at the Public Theater. But the 10 unpublished plays uncovered at the Library of Congress were a surprise. One of them, "Polk County," which lasted more than four hours during its first public reading in December 2000, has now been cut, shaped and wrestled into an uproariously gladdening production at the Arena Stage here.

Hurston wrote "Polk County" ostensibly with a collaborator, Dorothy Waring, who was married to a theater producer and who was interested in developing a Broadway show. According to background material supplied by the Arena, not much is known about Waring's contribution to the play, but the material was certainly Hurston's. It is set in the 1920's, in a sawmill camp in central Florida, a place that was much like Eatonville, the black-governed town that was Hurston's childhood home. (Polk County is a real place in Florida, near Orlando; a program note says that the second-largest private employer of county residents these days is Walt Disney World.)

The play depicts a small society of poor people with rules of decorum, a hierarchy of social influence and simple, shared values. And though rivalries, jealousies and the arrival of a newcomer create a semblance of plot, "Polk County" is more than anything a celebratory and admiring community portrait. Its language is a rollicking vernacular, full of affectionate yearning, elaborate verbal challenges, colorfully elocuted superstitions and the hyperbolic bouts of insult known as the dozens. Even the names of the characters among them Leafy Lee, Big Sweet, Dicey, Nunkie, Sop-the-Bottom, Boxcar, Do-Dirty and Maudella testify to a certain descriptive glee.

The one white character is the mill boss, a marginal figure but not in the lives of the men who work for him and the women who care for the men. The economic power he holds over them all is a bonding agent for the community, and that is really his function in the play, which is not about the curse of deep-seated racism, but about the joyful and fertile local culture that rises in spite of it.

A significant aspect of that culture is music the blues, gospel and folk tunes that were nurtured in places just like this and congealed into an American idiom. One of the characters, a much pursued bachelor with the evocative name My Honey (Clinton Derricks-Carroll), is a guitarist and blues singer of local repute, and the play provides several opportunities for him to perform.

In addition, a highly skilled quartet, with an eccentric instrumentation (a trombonist who doubles on a Jamaican drum and a harmonica player, in addition to a pianist and guitarist) is parked in a corner of the stage. (The Arena's main auditorium is constructed for theater-in-the-round, even if the performance floor is square.) Their sound is not only authentic and joyous the music director Stephen Wade has collected a variety of songs into a marvelously evocative period score but to ears accustomed to blaring Broadway, deliciously restrained and not overblown. The music so belongs within the narrative that the musicians might as well be characters; theatergoers who remember the inventive musical "James Joyce's 'The Dead'" will recognize a similar dynamic here.

The director, Kyle Donnelly who, with Cathy Madison, the literary manager for the Arena, cut and shaped the original script into a 2 1/2-hour show has staged a lively production, full of dancing, fighting, arguing, posturing and courting-and-sparking on a set by Thomas Lynch that leaves plenty of room on the stage for all the physical activity; its most prominent features (an enormous wheel inside the sawmill, for example) are planted alongside the ascending staircases in the audience.

The cast is full of strong, melodic voices and charismatic personalities. Notably these include Gin Hammond as Leafy Lee, the fragile-looking and light-skinned beauty from New York who arrives in the camp to soak up the blues and proves to have both spine and talent; the thrum-voiced David Toney as Lonnie, a loving man fearful of his woman's infidelity; Mr. Derricks-Carroll, whose My Honey loses his bachelor heart to Leafy Lee and whose honeyed manner (and singing) wins her in turn; and Perri Gaffney as Dicey Long, the villain of the piece, whose mean spirit stems from a long life of disappointment.

In a late scene that perfectly illustrates the depth of Hurston's compassion for her characters, Dicey, onstage alone, looks into a mirror and delivers a sorrowful monologue about life's unfairness:

"How come I got to look like I do?" she says, in part. "Why couldn't I have that long straight hair, like Big Sweet got, and that Leafy. They own looks like a horse's mane, and mine looks like drops of rain."

Ms. Gaffney, who has made Dicey's brittleness amusing and even potentially dear, resists the self-pity that the speech invites, and as a result Dicey is reclaimed in the audience's eyes. It is an extraordinary scene, for the playwright and the performer.

The show would not be anywhere nearly so successful, however, were it not for Harriett D. Foy, who plays Big Sweet, the combative, strong-hearted woman who is the unofficial mayor and sheriff of the sawmill camp. She is Lonnie's woman, and she is willing to use any method of intimidation to ensure that stays the case (though Lonnie has his doubts); she defends everything that belongs to her with the same vehemence. Indeed, the play opens with her knocking the tar out of the good-for-nothing Nunkie (Rudy Roberson), who evidently swindled Lonnie out of six dollars. Ms. Foy's stocky build and unusual, richly textured singing voice give Big Sweet a swagger that can both impersonate manliness and effect a salty femininity. Hers is a large, earthy, bold and highly engaging performance in a terrific woman's role.

"Polk County" runs through May 12, and because of commitments by cast members it will not be extended; this is a shame, but the main story here is that the Arena has given the theater world a gift. "Polk County" is not only a significant contribution to dramatic literature; it brings a new musical sound to the theater and welcome opportunities for black actors.

Yes, it is inevitable that this cut version of the script has its holes; several characters onstage don't get their stories told, for example. But as this production proves, that is a creative challenge that can be met. Theatergoers don't leave the Arena feeling cheated.

Though the show is a large one requiring significant financial resources, it would stand up, rather sturdily, to other stagings; other theaters and producers are hereby encouraged to take note.

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