Find the Lost Hurston 

The Berkeley Rep's Polk County is perfect non-Christmas holiday fare.

The play starts with a beating and ends with a wedding. In between, it's stuffed with more voodoo, sass, and authentic blues than a fruitcake has chewy bits. It must be from Zora Neale Hurston, the unapologetic Roman candle of the Harlem Renaissance. Hurston first worked on Polk County with a white woman named Dorothy Waring, who suggested that the folklorist give it a "Gershwinesque" feel to make it palatable for the Broadway stage, to which Hurston is said to have responded, "You don't know what the hell you're talking about." As funny, brash, and tough as the writer herself, this musical tribute to the land and people that produced the blues sprang from her belief that "it is almost useless to collect materials to lie upon the shelves of scientific societies. ... The Negro material is eminently suited to drama and music. In fact, it is drama and music, and the world and America in particular needs what this folk material holds."

The sad thing is that Hurston never saw 1944's Polk County produced. It languished, at first in the US Copyright Office and then the Library of Congress, until a retiree and Hurstonphile named John Wayne found it in 1997, along with ten other unpublished works of hers. Even sadder is that the author of Their Eyes Were Watching God didn't see her play produced at the Berkeley Rep, where it's merrily introducing audiences to the unforgettable characters and songs Hurston collected as a folklorist trawling the Depression-era South; a land of sawmills and turpentine stills and jooks, knife-wielding women and dreaming men. The Rep production captures all that vivid texture in a script dusted off by director Kyle Donnelly and dramaturge Cathy Madison, acted by a big, juicy cast largely imported from New York, and sung to music arranged by Chic Street Man.

Hurston lived out loud: the only African-American student at Barnard College the year she started (determined to finish high school after her father stopped paying for it, she lopped ten years off her age, a fiction that would prove convenient for years to come), she studied anthropology with Franz Boas, traveled around the South with a guitar and a pearl-handled revolver, tried a couple of marriages (neither stuck), lived on a series of houseboats, and spent many of her last years trying to find a lost Mayan city in the jungles of Honduras. She maddened and was embraced by both black and liberal white society for her politics and her language. She died in poverty and was buried in an unmarked grave, and would have slipped into obscurity if Alice Walker hadn't set out to champion her memory.

Polk County is based on Hurston's anthropological fieldwork under Boas' guidance, especially the folktales and writings that would be collected as Mules and Men. The theater claims that the story is about delicate young Leafy Lee (a Hurston stand-in), a light-skinned African-American woman born in the South and raised and educated in the North, who has come to a Floridian sawmill camp to learn how to sing the blues. But it's really the story of Big Sweet, the camp's peacekeeper, a proud woman who keeps order with her tongue and fists.

Big Sweet was a real person, and Kecia Lewis makes her even more so, with a deep velvet singing voice used to skin-tingling advantage on songs like "John Henry" and "Leavin' This Mess Behind." Big Sweet keeps order, loves her man Lonnie "harder than thunder can bump a stump," and tries to protect young Leafy from both the unattached men of the camp and the miserable woman named Dicey Long, played at a permanent boiling point by Perri Gaffney.

Most of the show's tension is provided by Dicey, who, envious of Big Sweet's position and spurned by the sweet-singing, guitar-picking man known as My Honey, decides that she's "gonna be propaganda, everyone's going to be talking about me. I'm gonna make my own graveyard." Cut down while engaged in a ritualized verbal competition with Leafy Lee, Dicey slinks away in anger. And when she returns, she trails bad news in her wake.

And the bad news comes in the astonishing person of Ella Wall, Big Sweet's rival and a whole lot of hoodoo-raising, piano-humping, man-stunning woman; you may recognize actress Deidre Goodwin from the "Cellblock Tango" number in the film version of Chicago, but it's a whole lot different seeing her "wringing her hips" through the corrugated tin-walled jook where the camp's inhabitants go to slow-dance and gamble. Wall has an Olympic command of her instrument; when she returns in the second act decked in top hat and tailcoat to put a conjure on her enemies, watch out. Hurston feared that her own stomach ailments were punishments inflicted by practitioners angered by her research into hoodoo; Wall's aerobic ritual makes that fear seem completely justified.

Set against such tough, splashy women, the men seem downright quiet and calm (most of Rudy Roberson's excellent fight choreography is performed by the women), even as they struggle amongst themselves or try to win the approval of the women. Doug Eskew as Stew Beef has a lovely, scary turn singing "Let the Deal Go Down" against a slow-motion card game. The sound of the cards slapping the table reverberate like whipcracks against his slow bass. My Honey (Clinton Derricks-Carroll), who likes to say that "The woman I'll marry hasn't been born yet, and her mother's dead," is sweet and affecting as he falls for Leafy Lee. Big Sweet's man Lonnie is a gentle dreamer who only loses his cool when he thinks he's losing her; otherwise Kevin Jackson makes lines about riding a great crow "shining diamond black over an ocean of melted-down pearls" as stirring as his invocations of folk hero High John the Conqueror. Like Lonnie's imagined ocean, this cast is loaded with gems, from Aliza Kennerly's coltish Maudella to Mississippi Charles Bevel's scampering Few Clothes.

The singing is flawlessly intertwined with the story, the music (a heady mix of guitar, piano, banjo, and several kinds of percussion, from footstamps to spoons) rousing, and the set, warm with wood and rust against a blue and green sunset background, creates an intimate sense of place. Hurston's ending is a little rushed, but Polk County does so much to capture the soul of this extended family, the earthiness and poetry of its inhabitants, that it's a small quibble. Deep, rich, and sweet, Polk County is the perfect non-Christmas holiday show.

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