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(Photo by T. Charles Erickson)

"KEYS TO THE KINGDOM": Lonnie (Kevin Jackson, left) and Big Sweet (Kecia Lewis) reminisce about their courting days and dream of their future together in one of many romantic moments in "Polk County," a comedy with music by Zora Neale Hurston and Dorothy Waring, playing through October 31 at McCarter¹s Matthews Theatre in Princeton.

Lyrical "Polk County" Dramatizes 1930s Black Rural South In Zora Neale Hurston Tribute to Love, Life and the Blues

Donald Gilpin

Classic comedy? Blues musical? Romance? Folklore? Autobiography? Anthropology? Polk County by Zora Neale Hurston and Dorothy Waring, recently discovered in the Library of Congress and playing now in a rousing production at McCarter's Matthews Theatre, defies labels.

Set in a sawmill camp in the woods of south central Florida in the 1930s, Polk County presents a slice of life in a tightly-knit African-American community, where the music of song and language prevail over the sorrows and hardships of daily existence. An array of dynamic, engaging characters create joy and laughter with guitars, a piano, and a feast of earthy, poetic language. Polk County is not without its flaws – a creaky plot and some inconsistency in plausibility and tone – but there are so many fine moments, superb performances, and such wealth of language and music that the lapses seem hardly noticeable on this journey into the world of the Depression-era South and its unforgettable inhabitants.

Ms. Hurston's thoroughly researched book and this vibrant, accomplished production bring these seventeen characters to life in all their vigor, humor, and nobility, with their all-consuming loves and their bitter hatreds – always in three dimensions, never caricatured.

Ms. Hurston ranks as an influential figure of the Harlem Renaissance and a major American writer of the twentieth century, but her life and writing have never been without controversy. Author of the universally acclaimed masterpiece Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) and a host of other novels, short stories, plays, and anthropological and autobiographical works, Ms. Hurston was largely unrecognized and living in abject poverty when she died in 1960. Some fifteen years later, due mostly to the efforts of novelist Alice Walker, Ms. Hurston's reputation was revived, and a resurgence of interest from scholars and the general public helped to restore her to her current position of high esteem in the pantheon of American literature.

Polk County focuses on the story of Big Sweet (Kecia Lewis) and Lonnie (Kevin Jackson), lovers and leaders in this community of mill workers. Ms. Lewis quickly establishes the physical and moral authority of Big Sweet in the opening scene, as she pummels Nunkie (Rudy Roberson), a ne'er-do-well gambler, in order to recover money he cheated out of Lonnie in a card game. Not surprising in the Hurston canon of dynamic female characters, Big Sweet proves to be as endearing as she is formidable. As acknowledged protector of the community, however, she runs afoul of the Quarters Boss (Eric L. Abrams), who threatens to evict her from the camp.

Meanwhile the alluring young Leafy Lee (Tiffany Thompson) arrives in camp, straight from New York City, seeking her long-lost father and wanting to learn the blues first-hand. Ms. Hurston herself, as she describes in Mules and Men, traveled to Polk County from New York to gather stories, songs, and folklore. She met many of the people who were later to become these characters, and actually underwent many of the experiences that Leafy Lee faces during the course of Polk County.

Leafy's appearance immediately stirs the affections of several of the local workers, most notably the guitar player My Honey (Clinton Derricks-Carroll), and at the same time it ignites the jealousy of the ill-favored Dicey Long (Perri Gaffney), who wants My Honey for herself.

Big Sweet befriends Leafy and promises to protect her; My Honey and Leafy become engaged; and the battle lines are drawn, as the furious Dicey vows revenge on My Honey and Leafy and enlists her beguiling, voodoo-practicing friend Ella Wall (Deidre Goodwin) to assist her. Their plans include first persuading the corrupt and abusive Quarters Boss to evict Big Sweet from the camp, then stirring up Lonnie's jealousy through a forged letter and winning Lonnie away from Big Sweet. Finally, after Big Sweet foils those plans, Dicey and Ella ally with Nunkie in concocting a voodoo spell to place a deadly graveyard-dust curse on the wedding of Leafy and My Honey.

At the moral and dramatic center of this production, Ms. Lewis and Mr. Jackson are strong and convincing. Their relationship is affecting and their powerful voices soar in bringing across the poignant blues songs and ballads.

Ms. Thompson's Leafy Lee, dressed New York-style with her flowered dresses and her carefully coiffed hair, portrays a striking presence in this work camp. Her scenes with Big Sweet effectively establish a vivid contrast and their deep sisterly relationship, and Ms. Thompson's lyrical The Magic of Dreamin provides the most beautiful moment of the evening. Mr. Derricks-Carroll's My Honey is a suitably charming, energetic, and musically adept counterpart for Leafy.

In the villainy department, Ms. Gaffney's Dicey and Ms. Goodwin's Ella seem to be an unlikely pair, but bonded by their hatred for the rest of the Polk County community, they complement each other to devastating effect. Both are excellent, with the sour-faced Dicey, almost always on stage, providing a bitter counterpoint to the optimism and good-heartedness of the community, while Ms. Goodwin's Ella – tall, stunning and dressed to kill (sometimes literally) – specializes in the dramatic entrance and the kind of dancing that rivets male attention for miles around.

Though the plot sporadically fails to sustain tension (Big Sweet hastily overcomes most of the obstacles here.) and avoids political, social or civil rights issues (The white mill owners, presumably exploitative and oppressive, are neither seen nor mentioned.) – the all-star ensemble, under the direction of Kyle Donnelly, with musical direction and original music by Chic Street Man, creates such a rich atmosphere, so full of violence and danger, life and love, that the show is thoroughly engaging from start to finish. Chic Street Man's ten original songs, along with such traditional numbers as John Henry, Careless Love, Polk County Blues, Ask the Watchman How Long, and many others, infuse Polk County with high spirits and energy that never flags.

Ms. Donnelly collaborated with Cathy Madison in adapting the material from Hurston's manuscript, which had languished in the Library of Congress for more than fifty years, and directed the award-winning world premiere of Polk County at Arena Stage in Washington D.C. two years ago. She has made extensive revisions for this McCarter production, which will move on to the Berkeley Repertory Theatre in November.

Carl Cofield as Sop-The-Bottom, Michael Keck as Do-Dirty, Mississippi Charles Bevel as Few Clothes, Doug Eskew as Stew Beef, Bill Sims, Jr. as Preacher, and Marc Damon Johnson as Box Car comprise the male contingent here. Each character is finely detailed and full of life and energy, not to mention first-rate vocal and dancing skills – whether it's a card game, a wedding or a night of revelry at the Jook. Not to be outdone, however, in this celebration of courtship, love and battles of the sexes are the women: Gabrielle Goyette as Laura B., Lynda Gravatt as Bunch, and Aliza Kennerly as the young girl Maudella. Mr. Sims, legendary blues guitarist, and Mr. Keck on piano provide impressive musical accompaniment.

Thomas Lynch's towering wooden set suggests the oppressiveness of the saw mill, and, with additions of furniture, along with Allen Lee Hughes' nuanced lighting shifts, serves equally effectively as the Jook, interior and exterior of the camp houses, and Dicey's shack.

This stirring, appealing production should attract sizeable audiences, of all ages and ethnic backgrounds. Lovers of Zora Neale Hurston's work will be delighted to experience the rich language and see some of the characters of Their Eyes Were Watching God, Mules and Men, and Dust Tracks on a Road brought to life. Those unfamiliar with her work can make Polk County their first exciting venture into this lyrical world where times are tough and life is lived close to the bone but humor and music prevail to soothe the soul and uplift the human spirit.

Polk County runs through October 31, with performances at 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays; 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 3 p.m. Saturdays, and 2 p.m. Sundays. Call (609)258-2787 or visit www.mccarter.org for tickets.


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