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This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the October 13, 2004 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Infusing Polk County with Joy

Harlem Renaissance writer Zora Neale Hurston wrote "Polk County," a play with music (co-authored with Dorothy Waring) in 1944, but she never saw it produced in her lifetime. About the traditions of Southern Black folks in an African American sawmill community in 1930s Florida, "Polk County" would have to wait until 1997, when Kyle Donnelly found a copy of the play at the Library of Congress and began considering it as a work she might like to adapt as well as direct. A subsequent reading of "Polk County" convinced her that she would not only want to direct what was then an obviously unwieldy play, but also incorporate a new musical score that would be part of the re-shaping process.

It was seen by the public for the first time in 2002 at Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage, where Donnelly was a long time artistic director (1992 to 1998), and where it won the Helen Hayes Award for Best New Musical.

A long time in coming can also be said of the recognition for Hurston (best know for "Their Eyes Were Watching God," 1937). Her legacy has been dotted as much with controversy, as it is now exalted with praise for her novels and poetry from teachers in American literature classes, as well as by casual readers of all races.

The well-received, but problematic premiere of "Polk County," inspired Donnelly to continue to cut, nurture, refine, and tweak – and especially to rethink – the musical elements of the lengthy play. If staged using the original 1944 script, it would run four hours and contain about 26 characters. The production at McCarter, currently in previews and running through October 31, will run about two-and-one-half hours and employ a company of 17. It represents more than seven years in development from page to stage.

"I immediately fell in love with the play and the people that Hurston is writing about," says Donnelly, as we chat in McCarter’s Auggie Esposito Green Room during a rehearsal break. She explains how her interest in Hurston is undoubtedly sparked by her two favorite playwrights, Anton Chekhov and Brian Friel, both of whom are noted for their plays with rural themes. But directing "Molly Sweeney" and "Dancing at Lughnasa" (Helen Hayes Award for Best Production) at Arena Stage, as well as the American premiere of "Give Me Your Answer, Do!" for Roundabout Theater – all by Friel – gives the rural Irish the edge over the rural Russians, and creates, methinks, a natural segue into the rural blacks.

Hardly a stranger to the work of Hurston, noted jazz composer and musician Chic Street Man had previously composed the music and starred in the Off-Broadway hit "Spunk," adapted by George C. Wolfe from three short stories by Hurston. Street Man (whose moniker is credited to his Uncle Willie – who called him "chicken" because he was afraid of nearby trains, cats, and dogs – and to his own take on the family last name Streetman) joined us for the three-way chat.

Although Street Man did not compose the music for the Arena Stage production, he was approached by Donnelly to bring a fresh musical concept to the McCarter production, as well as supplement the traditional folk music suggested by the script. "Chic and I had to look at how the new and the traditional music would be woven into the play," says Donnelly, clarifying that the songs do not come directly out of the characters’ emotions, but rather reflect what is happening in the action.

"These earthy spirited folk choose and use music to work to, to dance to. It serves, if anything, a spiritual function for them," she says. "After I picked what I wanted from the original script I asked Chic to give me the more soulful sound I was looking for. I asked him to come up with folk songs that he knew or heard from his great grandmother and new songs."

Notwithstanding his compositions for such dramatic entertainments as "The Caucasian Chalk Circle," for the Berkeley Repertory Company, "A Lesson Before Dying," for the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, and "Touch the Names: Letters to the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial," at the Cleveland Playhouse, Chic Street Man says, "This was the kind of music that spoke directly to me. I wrote about 11 of the 16 songs in the show. I didn’t have to do a lot of research." One of the more interesting aspects of the production revealed by Street Man is the use of the various instruments, including guitar, banjo, steel guitar, gut bucket, and piano, all of which are played by the cast members and not by an orchestra.

"A play is a thing that doesn’t really live until people do it," Donnelly says, explaining how the cast also had to be able to play the instruments. This aspect marked one of the major changes made between the Arena Stage and the McCarter production. "I love the ideas of previews and keeping a production evolving," she says about "Polk County," a co-production between McCarter and Berkeley Rep, where it will move directly after this engagement. Besides utilizing the actors’ instrumental abilities, Donnelly remarks how the actors have to speak the very earthy, often rough, folksy vernacular that Hurston so beautifully crafted without having it sound like a cartoon.

We discuss how Hurston’s use of realistic vernacular caused many black intellectuals at the time to feel that her depiction of blacks was like airing the dirty laundry. We also agree that what makes Hurston particularly interesting is her willingness to be politically incorrect. Donnelly says: "Zora wasn’t interested in writing about people bucking a political system but rather, as she shares her understanding of the play’s theme, about the joy of the people despite their dire circumstances."

Although the plot revolves around the sawmill’s most dominant character, Big Sweet, a woman in love with Lonnie and her conflict with a pair of rivals, as well as with Quarter Boss, the sawmill’s supervisor, it serves primarily as a device for us to enjoy the spirit of the community, the dancing, the rituals, the humor, and the music of a forgotten group of people. Donnelly explains that "sawmills lasted only about 30 years, until all the trees were cut down, creating a very itinerate community."

Originally subtitled "A Comedy about Negro Life in a Sawmill Camp with Authentic Negro Music," the play is being rediscovered. But, Donnelly says, "I wasn’t interested in re-writing or cleaning up her play, merely editing and giving it a better shape. There is a heritage and a history in Zora’s work that should be honored."

Another bit of history is exposed when I mention the journey that the Georgia-born, but Boston-raised, Street Man has taken from playing semi-pro baseball to Northeastern University in 1964 to serving in the Air Force, to garnering a B.S. in psychology at UC Santa Cruz in 1971, and living a year in France, where he recorded his first album, "Growing Up." He later came to Santa Barbara, where he formed the Chic Street Man’s School of Performing Arts. In 1995 he contributed his writing, arranging, and performing skills to the Denver Center Theater Company’s "It Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues." He has also participated in numerous United Nations benefits for peace, human rights, and indigenous care-givers.

After listening to Street Man’s travels, which she claims is all news to her, Donnelly, a native of the Detroit area, can only say, "It’s so sad. All I’ve ever done is theater."

After earning her undergraduate degree at the University of Michigan and a graduate degree at Indiana University, Donnelly says instead of going off to New York, as had most of her friends, she stayed in Chicago just at the time when Steppenwolfe was establishing its reputation and where she would find she didn’t have to wait to begin working in the theater.

"I was even trained to teach acting and started up my own school, which supported me as I continued to pursue directing," she says, adding one more coup de theatre: "I live with an actor, we have a seven-year-old daughter, Ella, and I am now head of the Professional Actor Training Program at UCSD in San Diego." To which Street Man responds, "And I live with a classical violinist and have a six-year-old son."

Joyfully, and unlike Hurston, Donnelly and Street Man will get to see their efforts up on the stage during their lifetime.

Polk County, McCarter Theater, University Place. Through Sunday, October 31. 609-258-2787 or visit www.mccarter.org.


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