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San Francisco by Richard Connema

An Astonishing Production of Polk County Brilliantly Stage

Also see Richard's reviews of Take Me Out

Polk County
Kecia Lewis, Perri Gaffney and Deidre Goodwin
The Berkeley Repertory Theatre is currently presenting a striking stage version of Zora Neale Hurston and Dorothy Waring's 1944 blues musical, Polk County. This West Coast premiere of the energizing musical is brilliantly staged at the Roda Theatre with a superb cast of 17 African-American actors and singers.

Hurston and Waring collaborated on the script in 1944 and deposited it in the U.S. Copyright Office, where it lay unseen and untouched until 1997 when this long forgotten show was discovered in the Library of Congress. Clay Madison and Kyle Donnelly of the Arena Stage in Washington D.C. found the play and presented it at their theatre in April 2002. Princeton’s McCarter Theatre presented it in October of this year where it received rave reviews. The current presentation is a co-production with the Princeton center with most of the cast intact.

Polk County is a rambling tale of life in a backwoods sawmill in south central Florida during the depression of the 1930s, where the key to living was merely to survive from day to day. It’s a story of African-Americans working under the “boss,” where the risk of death and injury is part of the job. They live in settlements surrounding the lumber mill, and these uneducated denizens have only inconsequential concerns, such as a steady paycheck, a place to sleep with a roof over their heads and someone to love. As in every society, there is greed and jealousy.

Big Sweet (Kecia Lewis) is the central figure in this two-act blues musical, and she is a no-nonsense gal. She balances her short fuse of feistiness with some wonderful tender love and care for her man, Lonnie (Kevin Jackson). She displays compassionate love for Leafy Lee (Tiffany Thompson), a young woman of mixed race who has come from Manhattan to search for her white, good-for-nothing father. Leafy also travels south to learn to sing the blues from the workmen. A romance blooms between Leafy and My Honey (Clinton Derricks-Carroll), much to the jealousy of the explosive camp tramp, Dicey Long (Perri Gaffney). Also thrown into this mix is Ella Wall (Deidre Goodwin), who causes sexual waves whenever she appears.

Polk County has a rich cast of characters and live musicians performing dozens of authentic early blues songs, including the ballad “John Henry” and the gospel song “Troubles Soon Be Over.” There are more than 35 musical pieces performed, and all are arranged by Stephan Wade. The dialogue is authentic and almost poetic, with such lines as “I’ll put waves on you the ocean ain’t never seen.” These characters face the hardships of the Depression with a sense of humor and faith in the blues, forming an unforgettable ensemble whose existence is seldom easy but always lived with gusto.

Kecia Lewis is a standout as Big Sweet, especially with her powerhouse voice singing out “John Henry,” and she is unstoppable singing “Leavin' This Mess Behind,” while Tiffany Thompson is the picture of purity as Leafy Lee. Thompson beautifully sings the enthralling ballad “Who’s to Say That It’s All Over Now.” Clinton Derricks-Carroll gives a slick performance as the guitar-playing and singing My Honey. Perri Gaffney gives a chilling performance as Dicey Long. Deidre Goodwin, who recently played Velma Kelly in Chicago in New York, is wonderful as the sex symbol and is reminiscent of Dorothy Dandridge as Carmen in Carmen Jones. Charles Bevel as the lanky, dancing old timer Few Clothes and Marc Damon Johnson as Box Car do some pretty high stepping in the production.

Thomas Lynch's design of a lumber camp is masterful, with a towering mill wheel on stage right . You can feel the opposing heat of a gator-infested area of south central Florida through the lighting of Allen Lee Hughes. Kyle Donnelly as the adaptor and director provides a bang-up portrayal of these folks during the early '30s.

Polk County is playing at Berkeley Rep’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison Street, Berkeley through January 9, 2005. Tickets can be obtained by calling 510-647-2949 or 888-4BRTix (toll free) or going to www.berkeleyrep.org.

Berkeley Rep's next production is the world premiere of Charles Mee’s Fetes de la Nuit, which opens January 28th.

Photo: T. Charles Erickson


Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area


- Richard Connema



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