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A few minutes into Zora Neale Hurston’s Polk County, you’re going to be asking yourself how this lively piece of African-Americana could have been allowed to sit out the last half-century unpublished and unproduced on a dusty shelf. By intermission, the answer is clear: What Hurston and co-author Dorothy Waring described as “A Comedy of Negro Life on a Sawmill Camp With Authentic Negro Music” was just waiting for this particular cast and director.
The wait was well worth it. In Kyle Donnelly’s world-premiere mounting at Arena Stage, some mighty impressive blues performers are playing, belting, stomping, carousing, laughing, and shouting the hell out of a character-driven, community-revealing poem of a show. There is a bit of tangled plotting in the second act, when wrapping up is finally required of a story that’s been too busy heading off in six directions at once to worry much about dramatic form. After a first act as joyous and rousing as Polk County’s, though, no audience in its right mind would complain about a plot kink or two.
The sense of discovery at Arena is contagious pretty much from the first punch thrown by Big Sweet (Harriett D. Foy), a none-too-delicate flower of sawmill womanhood who is demanding the return of $7 that her amiable lug of a guy, Lonnie (David Toney), lost playing cards. The card cheat she’s demanding it of is quickly reduced to begging for his scalp. No one messes with Big Sweet. Not even the mill’s white boss (Hugh Nees), though he blusters and shouts enough in his attempts to show that he’s in charge.
Everyone, on the other hand, messes with Dicey (Perri Gaffney), a snarling, unkempt harpy who dreams of slitting throats even as she wonders why guitar-strumming My Honey (Clinton Derricks-Carroll) isn’t as sweet on her as she is on him. The arrival of Leafy Lee (Gin Hammond) provides one answer, stoking My Honey’s passion—and provoking Dicey’s ire. Leafy is a delicate, light-skinned New Yorker who tells Big Sweet she’s searching for both authentic sawmill blues and the white father who abandoned her and her mother when she was an infant.
Though Leafy’s entrance is staged as if she were a Blanche DuBois fully prepared to depend entirely on the kindness of strangers, this transplanted Southern belle quickly proves her mettle. In an impromptu cutting contest, she tosses insults with the best of the locals, and before long, she has so entranced My Honey that he’s declaring to anyone who’ll listen that he “done got a letter from love.” Most of the men in the camp seem similarly smitten, and in between their trying to come up with authentic blues songs to sing for her, some serious woo-pitching ensues, including a fistfight that morphs into a steppin’ contest between two rather astonishing dancers who end up stomping and spinning atop tables in a local bar.
Donnelly and Arena literary manager Cathy Madison have been teasing Polk County into stageable shape since 1997, when its unwieldy script (some four hours of material) was discovered in a trove of unpublished Hurston papers at the Library of Congress. It’s easy to imagine the thrill they must have felt at the way the author’s homey vernacular (“an ocean made of melted-down pearls”) leaps off the page. Hurston, like Leafy, spent much of her time researching Southern black culture with the aim of bringing it to the attention of a wider audience. She’s known today mostly as a novelist and poet, but she apparently regarded theater as the most natural way of preserving the words and music she heard on her treks down rural byways, and her dialogue here is peppered with the effortlessly homespun wit (“You so sharp that if you didn’t have but one eye, I’d swear you was a needle”) that most Southern playwrights labor mightily to counterfeit.
Equally appealing, of course, are the classic blues songs she collected (brought to eruptive life at Arena by music director Stephen Wade and a terrific five-piece band). Donnelly is so clever about using Arena’s in-the-round auditorium to create the impression that the action is being overheard, rather than played to the audience, that the show’s music feels almost archival in its authenticity. Partly that’s because the singers can perform their numbers directly to Leafy in ways they couldn’t if they were situated behind a proscenium arch. But it’s also because the company creates a world in which language is heightened so persuasively (“I put waves on you the ocean ain’t never seen”) that it’s easy to accept that blues singing would come as naturally to them as breathing.
Apart from some awkwardness in the amplification, production details are all well-handled, from Paul Tazewell’s colorful costumes to the huge rusting wheel and smokestacks with which set designer Thomas Lynch reminds audiences that they’re in an industrial setting.
The musical Mamma Mia! also incorporates existing songs into its plot in a quasi-archival way, faithfully duplicating the throbbingly cheery sound of the Swedish pop group ABBA. On opening night, a colleague called the result a “karaoke musical,” and I find I can’t improve on that encapsulation for an evening that might as well have involved lip-synching.
There can’t be many musical-comedy fans who haven’t imagined cobbling together a plot line to go with existing pop hits. Baz Luhrmann did the trick in Moulin Rouge!, blending a lot of different styles into a reasonably coherent whole. What you realize at the National Theatre—where “Dancing Queen,” “Chiquitita,” “Take a Chance on Me,” and 19 other ditties decorate a story of a father-obsessing bride who invites three men to her wedding because their names appear in her mother’s diary roughly nine months before her birth—is just how difficult it is to invest an ABBA song with emotion while singing it to a metronomic beat. That may be why the sound mix emphasizes offstage harmonies over lyrical clarity.
The dialogue between songs is a step or two above pedestrian and delivered with energy, if no particular flair, by a decently capable cast that at least has the grace not to appear to be slumming. The show’s most effective moment by far is the curtain call, when the sound engineer ups the bass, all pretense of plot is finally abandoned, and the show becomes the ABBA tribute-band concert the audience seems to have expected all along. CP