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LETTERS TO EDITOR
|A CurtainUp DC Review
by Dolores Whiskeyman
Before the late Zora Neale Hurston made her name as a writer of fiction, she was a folklorist, traveling South in the 1930s to document a rural way of life that was rapidly disappearing.
Part of her study was the lives of black folk in the lumber camps of Central Florida, where rampant clear-cutting robbed the state of 27 million acres of pine and cypress between 1880 and 1930. By the time Hurston got there, the industry and the people who worked in it were on the way out.
Hurston brings it all back in Polk County, a bright, sprawling, joyful, music-filled work of love that opened at Arena Stage April 5.
More character study than play, Polk County introduces us to the lives and loves of 17 sawmill workers as they spar and flirt, labor and dream. The central story focuses on Big Sweet (Harriet D. Foy), a bruiser of a woman who loves hard and fights hard to protect those she loves -- in particular, her boyfriend Lonnie (David Toney). A subplot involves their friend My Honey (Clinton Derricks-Carroll) as he fights off the unwanted attentions of Dicey Long (Perri Gaffney), a universally disliked rival of Big Sweet's. Into this mix comes a pale, pretty girl named Leafy Lee (Gin Hammond) whose citified ways -- she's from Harlem -- fascinate both Big Sweet and My Honey and enrage Dicey.
The play is one of ten that Hurston filed with the Library of Congress's Copyright Drama Deposit; it was discovered there in 1997. She never saw it performed in her lifetime. Hurston, an iconoclast among African-American writers, was criticized for perpetuating what some (including author Richard Wright) said were "negative black stereotypes." Hurston refused to compromise in her depictions of poor working black folk, and Polk County, like much of her work, was condemned to obscurity because of it.
Hurston described Polk County as a "Comedy of Negro Life in a Sawmill Camp with Authentic Negro Music." As adapted by director Kyle Donnelly and Arena's former dramaturg Cathy Madison, Polk County features a musical score by Stephen Wade and performances by Washington, D.C., blues artists John Cephas and Phil Wiggins on guitar and harmonica, respectively, as well as Morris Ardoin on fiddle, accordion, washboard, and percussion; Daryl Davis on piano and pump organ, and Norvus Miller on trombone.
The star of the show, without question, is the music -- a mixture of blues, gospel, reels, waltzes, spirituals, and ragtime played by the kind of band you'd be thrilled to find in a backwoods honky tonk. Wade's arrangements of traditional tunes (and a few of his original songs) combined with the spirited performances of musicians and vocalists make Polk County a toe-tapper of an evening.
Without the music, the play would be far less successful. For despite a few promising storylines, Polk County is dramatically weak, without a central driving action to build excitement. Rather, the excitement comes from the performances. Foy and Derricks-Carroll are blessed with powerful voices made for singing the blues -- and they belt out not one, but two show-stoppers. And the rest of the cast is terrific.
As with most Arena productions, costumes, lighting and sets combine to render a visually satisfying world. But Hurston's language is the frame upon which those elements hang. The words are indeed beautiful, if at times a challenge to follow -- she has written the play in dialect -- and Hurston has a true talent for evoking character and place. It's genuinely exciting as well to watch a play in which the story is driven by its female characters.
Donnelly exploits those tensions wonderfully when Big Sweet and Dicey square off fussing and fighting over the men. These are active women -- all the women are resilient, bursting with life, real women living real lives -- not some male writer's adolescent fantasy of pretty-but-vapid femininity. These women do not sit around waiting for something to happen to them; they make it happen. It is truly their story, as Donnelly makes clear in her staging.
Time and again this director has shown her affinity for sprawling historical plays; she has a great capacity for staging complex scenes and maintaining the sense of forward movement even when the text itself doesn't sustain it. Here, Donnelly very nearly overcomes the central problem, lulling us into this rich, lost world so deeply that we nearly forget that Hurston's play isn't really finished.
Polk County is a play of wonderful possibility, but as the author is no longer with us to work out its problems, those possibilities will never be realized. The storylines promise drama, but ultimately aren't developed to deliver a satisfying resolution. Big Sweet is threatened with eviction by the Quarters' Boss -- and that incites Lonnie to resist. We are primed for rising action -- for more complications, for more of a fight -- but there is no fight. After Lonnie's big speech in the juke joint, rousing the community to support her, Big Sweet learns that her problem has been fixed -- off-stage -- and much too easily to satisfy me.
There are more examples of this throughout the play, but the rest of the audience didn't seem to mind these shortcomings as I did. Rapt throughout, by the final number, they were clapping hands; at curtain call, they leapt to their feet. So whatever sins of dramaturgy Polk County commits, all is forgiven by evening's end.
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