Against Thomas Lynch’s set of “life on this sorry sawmill camp”—great beams hold up roof and sidings of rusted metal, flanked by a two-story tall iron wheel, with a ragged line of treetops painted on the backdrop—Lonnie (Kevin Jackson) comes out at dawn and sings the Shack Rouser Song “Wake up . . . Day’s breakin’.”
It’s just the first of 20 songs (mostly traditional blues, gospel and spiritual tunes) that make up the counterpoint to the action and the hard living of Zora Neale Hurston’s rediscovered Polk County, onstage at the Berkeley Rep.
Almost immediately, as figures come and go in the half-light, there’s trouble: Big Sweet (Kecia Lewis) confronts Nunkie (Rudy Roberson) to get back the money he beat Lonnie, her “regular,” out of, gambling. When Nunkie refuses, Big Sweet lets him have it and literally squeezes it out of him. Nunkie complains to the others who gather around. “Why you want to die so young?” says one, “Give her the money and live to be old.”
”God send me a pistol and I’ll send him a man!” exclaims Big Sweet.
If Lonnie’s the gentle urger-along, the mellower, the folk poet (”Lonnie dreams pretty things,” Big Sweet says), Big Sweet’s an enforcer, an equalizer for the black workers on the camp. The quarters boss (Eric L. Abrams) admonishes her: “This rough-housin’ gotta stop. You stomp three men; they can’t work.”
And with the entrance of more folks singing, led by My Honey (Clinton Derricks-Carroll) on guitar, the sign of more trouble brewing: Dicey (Peri Gaffney) can’t do enough for My Honey, who wants none of her. “How long you gonna be gone?” she asks him. “From since when ‘til nobody knows!”
Big Sweet handily divests her of the knife she brandishes, warning her, “Wanting a man who don’t want you’s like peepin’ in a jug with one eye—all you see is darkness.” Dicey’s defiant. “Why we got to have all this disturbment?” she’s asked. “I’m gonna get me a new big knife and I’m gonna make me a graveyard of my own!”
The juiciness of the vernacular comes from the meat of experience behind it. Hurston knew these workcamps, where she went as an anthropologist to study black folk culture and music. If her view of things has acquired a blush for the stage, the reality behind the picture presented isn’t hard to conjure up. The language does that—despite its charm and inventiveness, it’s also clearly a weapon, a warning, and a sponge for the desperation of circumstances, which can change quickly from menace to hilarity, just as much as it’s a source of poetry and ribald humor.
There’s a romanticized autobiographical touch: into the camp comes pretty young citygirl Leafy Lee—“That’s a pretty name to have, especially when it’s yours for real!”—an educated young lady, played by Tiffany Thompson, who says she’s come to learn the blues, to sing like Ethel Waters.
Everybody’s suspicious at first, but Big Sweet takes her under her wing. Leafy confides that she’s returned to the camp she was born in, her mother having just died, and that nothing held her to New York, not even a man asking her momma for her hand.
Big Sweet and Leafy learn from each other. “I aim to put my wisdom tooth in your ear; I mean to be your forerunner, like John The Baptist.” News spreads quickly among the men about the exotic among them. They fawn over her. My Honey seems to be the most successful of Leafy’s many suitors. He sings “Careless Love” while Dicey suffers in the shadow.
There’re more dilemmas to be overcome before Leafy and My Honey will be able to Jump the Broom: told to leave the camp by the philandering Boss, Big Sweet wonders if she and Lonnie should go to New York, where Leafy says they could live on their singing. “I can’t leave; I’m somebody now. I can’t feel like nothin’ no more.”
Vampy Ella Wall (Deidre Goodwin) sashays in (a sassy entrance long prepared for that has Ella swivelling her legs around atop the piano—and the piano player running for it)—and brings a lot of voodoo along with her, teaming up with Dicey and Nunkie to “do the devil’s work.”
Director Kyle Donnelly, who adapted Hurston’s manuscript with Cathy Madison, has a particularly good moment of staging, with stalwart Doug Eskew as Stew Beef singing “Let The Deal Go Down” as the other players move in slow motion, syncopated by the slapping-down of the cards.
It’s a fine cast of nearly 20, all singing and dancing very well, sometimes brilliantly (even in the background: Aliza Kennerly as Maudella has few lines, but gracefully dances up a storm, over and over). But pride of place goes to Kecia Lewis as Big Sweet in a wonderful performance, with too few numbers to show off her fine voice (she’s also a recorded contemporary Gospel singer; her mournful singing of “John Henry” introduces a liturgical note amid the flowing of the blues).
The play, which Hurston cowrote with Dorothy Waring, was neglected in the Library of Congress archives for decades. Donnelly and Madison shortened it considerably. The music of the first half seems to rise out of the action and flow back into it more naturally than in the second half, when the songs seem more to illustrate the action, as in a conventional musical. There’s also a concentration of some of the nine new numbers by Chic Street Man at the opening of the second act; they’re good songs, but some have a more modern flavor than the traditional numbers. In others (like “Lick It Like That” and “Sweet Potatoes In The Oven”), there’s a closer match to the vernacular of the old tunes.
There’s a period feel to Polk County, and a folkloric sensibility, mediating whatever’s folk in it. Hurston wrote it after the great decades of the folkloric drama in Europe—the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, which inspired Garcia Lorca’s Andalucian plays like Blood Wedding (and the greater, if lesser-known, “esperpentos” of his older contemporary, Ramon del Valle-Inclan, like Divine Words). There were also the “proletarian” dramatizations of peasants grappling with modernization—a kind of literature in which Hurston couldn’t find a place.
It’s a great rediscovery and a rousing show in any case. Berkeley Rep has a hit on their hands—out of the past.