A welcoming `Polk County'

Arena Stage production sets Zora Neale Hurston work to music

Theater review

April 13, 2002|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,SUN STAFF

As a folklorist by training and a writer by inclination, Zora Neale Hurston was captivated by the abundance and intricacy of life in the sawmill camps of central Florida, and determined to capture it on the page.

For better or worse, the voices of both author and anthropologist can be detected in Polk County, a promising if flawed musical making its international debut at Washington's Arena Stage.

How a play by Hurston, one of the most acclaimed figures of the Harlem Renaissance, languished unread for nearly 60 years is a story in itself:

Hurston and her co-writer, Dorothy Waring, sent the manuscript to the Library of Congress for copyright purposes in 1944, according to the program notes. A stage run in New York was anticipated, but the production fell through, and Hurston's literary reputation began to decline. She died in 1960.

It wasn't until 1997 that 10 unpublished works by Hurston were unearthed from the library archives, including Polk County. Over the next five years, Arena Stage administrators Cathy Madison and Kyle Donnelly trimmed and shaped the script, while music director Stephen Wade compiled, arranged or composed 33 songs.

Set designer Thomas Lynch evokes a Florida lumber camp in the 1930s with simple props: a bench, a grove of palm trees off-stage, a scrim of greenery behind the audience. Leafy Lee, an innocent city girl, comes to the camp to learn to sing the blues, and soon falls in love with My Honey, a talented guitar player. Their courtship enrages a camp woman named Dicey Long, who has an unrequited passion for My Honey. Dicey has a mean way with a switchblade, but Leafy has a powerful protector: Big Sweet, the camp's unofficial mayor and police chief.

Hurston has been criticized for perpetuating stereotypes about rural African-Americans. But while she makes her characters uneducated, she doesn't make them inarticulate; she bestows on them her own rich gift of eloquence. For instance, one character compares falling asleep to being carried off by a giant bird:

"A crow, diamond-shining black. One wing rests on the morning and the other one brushes off the sundown. He lights down out the sky, and I rides on his back."

A gem, indeed. And the rest of the musical is sprinkled with jewels like it.

If Hurston's layered imagery is one of Polk County's great strengths, it also is one of the musical's great challenges. The script is replete with such obsolete expressions as "stomp-down fan-foot" - and it doesn't help that the setting requires a thick Southern drawl. During a recent performance, I had trouble deciphering chunks of the dialogue. I could follow the broad outlines of the plot, but too often, the nuances were lost.

Hurston the writer gave her characters inventive nicknames: Few Clothes, Stew Beef, Do-Dirty, Sop-the-Bottom. Hurston the folklorist obviously was fascinated by a society in which voodoo was practiced, where tough women carved up men and acquired the aura of Hollywood starlets.

But too often, Polk County substitutes colorful quirks for believable characters. For example, Big Sweet has killed at least three men, but we see no signs of inner storms. Instead, she's portrayed as doing the best she can to keep the peace, more from a sense of duty than from murderous rage.

Though the script has been trimmed substantially (from 4 hours to 2 1/2 ), it's still too long. The first act is shapely and swift, but my attention wandered during the second act.

A subplot in which Big Sweet and her boyfriend, Lonnie, quarrel seems extraneous, and several scenes merely are excuses for musical numbers. Granted, Stephen Wade's score is a delight, especially when the musicians play on such improvised instruments as baling wire and a tin bucket. But since Oklahoma, songs in musicals have been expected to serve a narrative purpose by setting the scene, advancing the plot, or expressing a character's innermost feelings, and that's occasionally lacking from Polk County.

The cast is solid, and many members have excellent voices, including Gin Hammond (Leafy), David Toney (Lonnie) and Gabrielle Goyette (Laura B). But they seem to have been cast more for singing ability than for verisimilitude - except for Perri Gaffney, whose Dicey is a fierce arrow of a woman.

In my ideal cast, Lonnie would be dreamier and less extroverted, and My Honey (Clinton Derricks-Carroll) would have the charisma that his name implies. As Big Sweet, Harriet Foy has a nice swagger and a pleasant way with a tune, but she is a woman of average size and a seemingly sunny disposition. She simply doesn't have the physique to convince us that she could beat up tough loggers.

But how often is life ideal? Despite occasional flaws, Polk County is a welcome introduction to a combustible, fertile world.

Polk County

Where: Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. S.W., Washington

When: 7:30 p.m. most Tuesdays, Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays; 2:30 p.m., 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 p.m., 7:30 p.m. most Sundays. Through May 12

Admission: $42-$54

Call: 202-488-4377

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