Corrections or additions?
This review by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the October 20,
2004 issue of
U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
‘Polk County" at McCarter
A well-placed knee into the groin, then a left to the mid-section, and
a right to the jaw, and Big Sweet (Kecia Lewis), a large rough and
tough woman, means business when she knocks no-good gambler Nunkie
(Rudy Roberson) to the ground, demanding that he return the money he
has stolen from her lover, Lonnie (Kevin Jackson), a dreamer with no
heart for fighting. Big Sweet not only stands by her man, she stands
up for him, and as dynamically played by Lewis, is a force of nature.
Set within an African American sawmill community in 1930s Florida,
"Polk County" is the 60-year-old play with music by Harlem Renaissance
writer Zora Neale Hurston and Dorothy Waring that focuses on a woman
with the power and the will to take charge of the social law and order
among the workers, and with the capacity to love in an
uncompromisingly fierce way.
Nunkie isn’t the only one who doesn’t like being humiliated by this
imposing woman, who stands tall and fearless in the face of men,
women, and any and all circumstances. Big Sweet has to contend with
the threats of embittered and vengeful knife-wielding Dicey (Perri
Gaffney), as well as with town vamp Ella Wall (Deidre Goodwin),
Dicey’s partner in skullduggery.
Romantic entanglements thicken as lady’s man blues singer My Honey
(Clinton Derricks-Carroll) short-circuits his almost-never-happened
affair with Dicey, and turns his attention to demure songstress Leafy
Thompson (Tiffany Thompson), the new girl in town. Things get nastier
when the lecherous Quarters Boss (Eric L. Abrams), jealous of Big
Sweet’s power, gets abusive with Big Sweet. What can you expect from
all this loving and fighting except plenty of great singing,
knee-slapping, finger snapping, soul-searching music and dancing in
the lumber camp where sexual tensions and murderous intentions seem to
devolve with regularity into party time.
As all the performers offer extraordinarily vivid portrayals of
characters that Hurston sketched with more heart than dimension, it is
Thompson’s charmingly demure performance as Leafy that contrasts most
memorably with Lewis’ grand and larger than life presence. The
somewhat quaint melodramatics are bolstered by the zesty folk talk,
and lifted higher by the inclusion of traditional folk music, such as
"Jesus Gonna’ Make Up My Tiny Bed," "John Henry," and "Oh Careless
Love," implemented with some fine new traditionally-inspired blues by
composer Chic Street Man. Notwithstanding a few raunchy songs, the
music primarily serves a spiritual function as it reflects what is
happening in the action. Much of the play’s pleasures come from
musical moments where members of the cast sing and play various
instruments, such as guitar, banjo, steel guitar, gut bucket, and
Originally subtitled "A Comedy about Negro Life in a Sawmill Camp with
Authentic Negro Music," "Polk County," despite the cushioned reality
of the time and place, is nevertheless enviable in its optimism. I
doubt whether Hurston’s interest in Southern black traditions and
rites – her ability to capture the lyrical earthy speech, and prickly
humor, and folklore of the rural blacks – could be better served than
by director Kyle Donnelly and company.
There are issues, to be sure, that still need attending, such as the
pacing and the play’s length, about 30 minutes too long, and a
protracted voodoo dance that needs to be either excised or exorcized.
Designer Thomas Lynch’s has created an impressive evocation of a
lumber community. The tall and wide expanse of wooden beams is easily
turned into various locations, including the workers’ living quarters,
and most importantly the Jook (pleasure house), with its honky-tonk
piano, card table and chairs, and strands of lights hanging from the
Despite a production of "Spunk" (1990), a delightful show that
combined three of Hurston’s short stories and made a splash
Off-Broadway, and the satiric "Mule Bone" (written in 1931), Hurston’s
collaboration with Langston Hughes that finally got its Broadway
showcase in 1991, nothing of consequence seemed to emerge from
Hurston’s play canon. Nothing that is until "Polk County" (written in
1944) was resurrected in all its unwieldy glory in 1997 by Donnelly,
who, in collaboration with co-adapter and dramaturg Cathy Madison,
reshaped a play they both loved from the outset but felt was over
long, problematic, but eminently worthy. After an encouraging premiere
of the play with music at Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage in 2002,
"Polk County" is spreading its luminous spirit across the McCarter
– Simon Saltzman
Polk County, McCarter Theater, University Place, Princeton;
Through Sunday, October 31. For times and tickets call 609-258-2787 or
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