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Watching Zora Neale 

An exhilarating blues musical stymied by its Broadway ambitions

Wednesday, Dec 8 2004
Ever since Alice Walker found a certain unmarked grave in Florida 31 years ago, Zora Neale Hurston has enjoyed the sort of career that the literary world of the 1930s and '40s -- both in midtown Manhattan and in Harlem -- denied her during a long, productive life. Unpublished stories and unproduced plays keep turning up. Now she's a famous novelist, mainly for Their Eyes Were Watching God, but for a while in the '30s she also wanted to make her name on Broadway. A Library of Congress press release even mentions that one scholar "has estimated Hurston wrote at least twenty plays between 1930 and 1935."

She wrote Polk County in 1944, in collaboration with a white woman named Dorothy Waring. It's an honest-to-God blues musical, American to the bone, which may be one reason no one in New York has produced it. This new edit by Cathy Madison and Kyle Donnelly premiered at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., two years ago, to rave reviews, but the script still has scars from what must have been a bad argument between Waring and Hurston -- a tension between showy silliness and drama, between Broadway and the blues. "Apparently, when Waring suggested that Hurston keep a sort of 'Gershwinesque feeling' to the musical," we read in the Berkeley Rep's program notes, "Hurston replied, 'You don't know what the hell you're talking about.'"

Polk County is a wooded backcountry slab of central Florida, where a black work gang lives in a camp around a sawmill. The workers drift from job to job, but a married couple named Lonnie and Big Sweet seem to hold the community together. Lonnie's a tough but honest worker; Big Sweet's a quick-tempered woman who can rough up locals who try to cheat Lonnie in a poker game. A rangy woman named Dicey Long resents Big Sweet's position. "Yo' time now," she says. "Be mine's after a while." But no one takes her seriously. And everyone -- luckily, for the producers of a musical -- likes to sing.

Into this squabbling makeshift village walks a light brown New York woman, Leafy Lee, hoping to learn about the blues. At first no one knows what to think. Dicey says she's a prostitute. But she turns out to be more local than any of them, a mixed-race daughter of the white sawmill owner, born in Polk County and spirited north as a girl.

So the play starts as a promising drama of self-discovery. The teeming Southern types, the roughhousing, the heat, and the weaving story lines have a pleasant Tennessee Williams feel; the quest setup reminds me of Lena Grove, padding through the dust to a Mississippi sawmill in William Faulkner's Light in August. The show has elements, in other words, of a great story, which Broadway ambitions (Dorothy Waring's? Hurston's? the adapters'?) have killed.

Not that it's a bad musical. The blues numbers are all terrific, from traditional songs like "Jesus Gonna Make Up My Dyin' Bed" to dirty originals like "Lick It Like That," by Chic Street Man, the show's music director. Actors such as Clinton Derricks-Carroll (as a sawmill worker called My Honey) or Bill Sims Jr. (as a preacher) can sing and play guitar like old masters; there's no need for recorded music or an offstage band. Kecia Lewis, as Big Sweet, does a beautiful gospel-blues version of "John Henry," in a duet with Tiffany Thompson (as Leafy Lee). And Deidre Goodwin, as a rival of Big Sweet's named Ella, shivers the rafters with a hot vamping blues number called "I Feel a Change Comin' On."

But the show is supposed to tell Leafy Lee's story, and it doesn't. Instead of sticking to the business about her mysterious father or even her search for songs, the plot veers into a dastardly plan by Ella and Dicey to sabotage Leafy's happiness with voodoo. And since Leafy sings as well as anyone in the camp -- from the very start -- the search for songs turns into a limp excuse to shove as many of them into the show as possible. ("Sweet Potatoes in the Oven" is fun but hard to excuse.) Hurston herself wandered Florida and the Caribbean to collect African-American folklore, so I don't think she meant to let this part of the story drop; I imagine she just didn't finish the play, which has left room for a big phony song-and-dance finale.

At least Chic Street Man has avoided a "Gershwinesque feeling" in choosing and writing the music: Every song except a bland number called "The Magic of Dreamin'" is raw and powerful country blues, not blues adapted for theater. As a revue of homegrown American songs, the show deserves a nice, long Broadway run. But it's not what it could be. The tragedy of Zora Neale Hurston's undiscovered playwriting is that even now, after years of reverent treatment by scholars, dramaturges, directors, adapters, and musicians -- not to mention brilliant actors -- her plain common sense still doesn't quite shine through.


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