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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

piano.

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

roof.

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

Theater’s stage.

– Simon Saltzman

Polk County, McCarter Theater, University Place, Princeton;

Through Sunday, October 31. For times and tickets call 609-258-2787 or

visit www.mccarter.org.


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