- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 13, 2002

Maybe the vaults of the Library of Congress should be combed more often, if gems such as Zora Neale Hurston's "Polk County" can be found.

"Polk County," written in 1944 in collaboration with Dorothy Waring, languished at the library until 1997. It was discovered by John Wayne (a copyright specialist, not the actor) and literary manuscript historian Alice Birney. Cathy Madison, then literary manager for Arena Stage and a Hurston enthusiast, became one of the script's earliest readers and adapted it with Kyle Donnelly, a director at Arena Stage.

The result is a sassy and dizzyingly high-spirited evening of music and mythic-sized characters. Set in a sawmill camp in Florida in the 1930s, "Polk County" details the daily dramas and triumphs of a close-knit community of black workers.

The first scene sets the stage for Miss Hurston's gutsy, undecorous way with words and people. Big Sweet (Harriett D. Foy), clad in a man's undershirt and a sturdy pair of britches, is smacking the daylights out of a guy who cheated her boyfriend in a card game. Big Sweet has a roostery swagger, a right hook and a way with a dirty look and a dissin' remark. Underneath all that gruffness, though, she is googly-eyed for her man, Lonnie (David Toney), a sweet-souled dreamer who needs protecting.

She can sing, too. "I take my music and my meanness wherever I go," Big Sweet notes, not that you would want to challenge her on that. When she sings the blues or a double-entendre-filled ditty, Miss Foy's voice is a full force of nature.

Big Sweet and the other female characters look great. Paul Tazewell has designed costumes as bright as a seed catalog that set off their mostly fuller figures to perfection.

No one in her right mind would cross Big Sweet, except Dicey Long (Perri Gaffney), a stringy and mean gal who is always threatening to cut folks with her switchblade. She's fed up with Big Sweet's being the queen bee and is even more resentful that My Honey (Clinton Derricks-Carroll), a clean-living blues singer, won't return her affection. When Dicey loves, it is with a vengeance . She hurls herself with cartoon-character speed at My Honey, who swats her away as if she is a particularly meddlesome insect.

There's nothing wrong with Dicey's taste. My Honey is pretty special. When he walks in, performing a hip-swiveling rendition of "Jesus Gonna Make Up My Dyin' Bed," you are ready to testify in your theater seat.

Dicey is a sourpuss from the beginning, and her mood doesn't improve when My Honey falls for the new girl in town. That's the demure, mixed-race Leafy Lee (Gin Hammond), who has come all the way from New York to learn the blues and clap eyes on the white father she never knew.

On the surface, this may be a boy-meets-girl romance, but "Polk County" is a rough place. People here work hard, play hard and love hard. Saturday night is not a time for a few wine coolers and polite chitchat; it's an evening of cold beer, hot blues, card games and the inevitable barroom brawl.

This sort of heated atmosphere is perfect for Miss Hurston's Day-Glo language. There are all sorts of nuggets to savor: "Don't let the gator beat you to the pond" is one piece of advice. At one point, Big Sweet informs Leafy, "I'm aimin' to put my wisdom tooth in your head."

The folksy phantasm is heightened by the music, scored by Stephen Wade. He has found a fine collection of traditional Southern folk and blues songs, church music, rags and reels. The music is played beautifully by a five-piece band authentic to the times. It consists of trombone, piano, pump organ, fiddle and slide and finger-picked guitar.

While "Polk County" looks and sounds like a Jacob Lawrence painting come to life, it is not without faults. Miss Hurston's sprawling, virtually structure-free style is fine for a while, but at nearly three hours, the play meanders and then meanders some more.

The first act wobbles to a conclusion. Act 2 doesn't know where to go and becomes a string of colorful anecdotes that fails to tie up to a satisfying whole, even though there is a wedding at the end, and the promise of more to come.

Maybe structure isn't as important as usual when the language and characters are as full-bloomed as the ones in "Polk County." The actors seem to be relishing their roles, from Miss Foy as the brawling, tenderhearted Big Sweet, to Mr. Derricks-Carroll as the bluesman My Honey, to Miss Hammond as the surprisingly resilient Leafy, to Mr. Toney as Lonnie, a man of integrity and dreams that are larger than life.

It is a wonderful thing that "Polk County" has come out of the vault and into our lives.


***

WHAT: "Polk County"

WHEN: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; 2:30 p.m. Saturdays; 2 p.m. tomorrow, April 21, May 5 and May 12; 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays except April 16 and May 12; noon April 16 and 24 and May 9. Through May 12.

WHERE: Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW

TICKETS: $42 to $54

PHONE: 202/488-3300

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide