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Regional Reviews: New Jersey

Polk County: A Folkloric Play with Music Resurrected

Also see Bob's reviews of The Rivals and Under Glass

Kevin Jackson
and Kecia Lewis

Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960) is primarily known for her 1942 autobiography and as a folkloric novelist and anthropologist. A part of the Harlem Renaissance, she was a controversial figure, vilified by Richard Wright and others because of her insistence on chronicling the culture of stereotypically non-political, happy, poor rural blacks. Her life far outlasted her fame, but during the past fifteen years, artists and cultural historians have acted to restore Hurston to the American cultural pantheon.

Hurston was not primarily known as a playwright. The unproduced and unpublished play Polk County by Hurston and Dorothy Waring had been deposited for copyright in the Library of Congress in 1944. It was discovered there in 1997.

The then Arena Stage (Washington, D.C.) Associate Artistic Director Kyle Donnelly and literary manager Cathy Madison soon thereafter began the extended process of getting Polk County on stage. They felt that the 27 character, four hour, three act script (with indications for the placement of archival music) was too unwieldy. They joined forces to adapt and streamline it. Their adaptation was produced at Arena Stage in 2002, with Donnelly directing, and added music composed and adapted by Stephen Wade. Donnelly and Madison have continued to refine their vision of the now two-act play. They have replaced Wade's contribution with original music (some songs are traditional) and music direction by Chic Street Man with the intent of more closely capturing the blues music of the black Southern tradition. The result of these efforts can now be observed on the stage of Princeton's McCarter Theatre.

Thanks largely to the blues-infused music and an extremely strong, well directed cast, there is much that is pleasurable here. There is a more than sufficient plot, but its presentation is perfunctory and lacking in dramatic impact. Although it may well be that Hurston's original manuscript could not be produced without change, it feels as if too many rough edges may have been smoothed over. At present, Polk County plays like a light ethnic entertainment from a long gone era.

Author Zora Neale Hurston described her play on its title page as "a comedy of Negro life in a sawmill in south central Florida". The time is 1930. The location is a sawmill company camp built within a forest, as it was cheaper to mill the lumber where the trees are than to ship the raw lumber for processing. All of the workers are black. The only representative of authority on stage is an overbearing black overseer who is referred to as Quarters Boss.

Actually, law and order in the living quarters is in the hands of Big Sweet (Kecia Lewis), a large, strong and handsome woman whose physical strength and innate decency and fairness command the respect of the community. Commitment is not the norm in these work camp surroundings. However, Big Sweet and Lonnie (Kevin Jackson), a weak, jovial individual in need of a strong helping hand, have established a strong, familial relationship. As the play begins, Big Sweet is in the process of forcing Nunkie (Rudy Roberson), a dishonest gambler who preys on the mill workers, to return money that he had "won" from Lonnie the night before.

Trouble lies ahead for our happy couple in the form of Dicey Long (Perri Gaffney), a mentally disturbed, violent, hateful woman, and Ella Wall (Deidre Goodwin), a wild, wanton Voodoo woman who would seduce Lonnie just to be evil. Dicey imposes herself on Lonnie's best friend, the guitar-loving musician, My Honey (Clinton Derricks-Carroll).

Soon to arrive on the scene is the adorable Leafy Lee (Tiffany Thompson). The 22-year-old Leafy aspires to be a singer, and tells all that she has come from New York to learn to sing the blues from its source. However, she soon reveals that she was born in the camp. Her mother took her up North when she was ten years old. Now Leafy has come South to meet her white father, a cousin to the mill owner. We are immediately informed that this potentially dramatic confrontation has already occurred offstage. In very short order, Leafy and My Honey become a happy couple.

Kecia Lewis is a true earth mother. Lewis dominates the stage just as Big Sweet should. Her smile envelops the entire auditorium, her physical strength is palpable, and her large, warm and mellifluous voice is a gift from the gods. Kevin Jackson is solid as her Lonnie.

Perri Gaffney is powerful and believable as the disturbed Dicey. Gaffney makes us feel at a gut level that her Dicey would seek redemption with the evilest of acts. Her performance adds needed sinew to the entire enterprise.

Tiffany Thompson and Clinton Derricks-Carroll dispense charm in abundance as the music-loving, romantic young couple.

The entire 17-member cast performs with amiable gusto, and sings with beauty and power. Several of the men double as musical accompanists while remaining within the context of their roles.

In her role as director, Kyle Donnelly moves matters along smoothly and swiftly. She has elicited uniformly excellent performances from her large cast. Dianne McIntyre's choreography is lively. The large and solid unit set by Thomas Lynch is both functional and evocative as the action moves among several locations in the mill camp.

The original music by Chic Street Man blends in well with the traditional songs. The music provides much of the entertainment on hand. Some of the lyrics to his new songs are integrated into the story. However, for the most part, there is the feeling that when the music begins the book is on hold.

The McCarter Theatre Center is fulfilling an important mission in using its resources to produce this recently discovered play from America's cultural past. It seems safe to assume that McCarter audiences will be appreciative.

Polk County continues performances through October 31, 2004 at the McCarter Theatre Center (Matthews Theatre), 91 University Place, Princeton, NJ 08540. Box Office: 609-258-2787 (ARTS); online

Polk County by Zora Neale Hurston and Dorothy Waring; adapted by Kyle Donnelly and Cathy Madison; original music and music direction by Chic Street Man; directed by Kyle Donnelly.

Cast (in order of speaking):
Lonnie..........Kevin Jackson
Big Sweet........Kecia Lewis
Nunkie........Rudy Roberson
Laura B...........Gabrielle Goyette
Sop-The-Bottom..........Carl Cofield
Bunch.............Lynda Gravatt
Do-Dirty.............Michael Keck
Few Clothes..........Mississippi Charles Bevel
Quarters Boss........Eric L. Abrams
Dicey Long........Perri Gaffney
My Honey..Clinton Derricks-Carroll
Stew Beef...........Doug Eskew
Preacher..........Bill Sims, Jr
Box Car..........Marc Damon Johnson
Leafy Lee.........Tiffany Thompson
Maudella........Aliza Kennerly
Ella Wall........Deidre Goodwin

Photo: T. Charles Erickson

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