A recently discovered play by a leading African-American writer of the early 20th century made its world premier recently at Washington's Arena Stage. Polk County by Zora Neale Hurston languished in the archives of the Library of Congress for nearly sixty years before it was recognized as a major theatrical work. The play, combined with music, is now being lauded as one of the true voices of rural African-American life.
Polk County which relies heavily on music, although it's not called a musical, but a play with music. Written in 1944 in collaboration with Dorothy Waring, Zora Neale Hurston's story is set in a sawmill camp in central Florida what is still Polk County today, and focuses on the lives of a community of African-American men and women. Zora Neale Hurston, who is largely known for her novels and short stories, knew her subject well. She was inspired by her own personal experiences as a folklore anthropologist in Florida.
"Polk County is a real place," said Cathy Madison, who co-adapted Polk County with Arena Stage director, Kyle Donnelly. "Now we mostly know it as the Orlando area most of Polk County people work for Walt Disney now."
Ms. Madison was working as literary manager for the theater in 1997, when she was alerted by a retired librarian at the Library of Congress of ten unpublished Zora Neale Hurston manuscripts filed away in the library's vaults. She read all ten works and says she was immediately struck by Polk County's theatricality."
"She has such a unique use of language, which is a combination of her own creativity and also the kind of language spoken by rural, southern blacks during that time which was in the 1920s and '30s," she said. "I also loved her depiction of women, because what's kind of funny in this play is it's set on a sawmill lumber camp, you think that the men are going to be the protagonists of the play, in a kind of 'macho' setting. But what actually happens in Polk County is that the women are the strong characters and it's great to see how these women function in this really specific society."
"Also, I just loved the music," she added. "Zora Neale Hurston, actually, in her original script, she suggests about 24 early blues and folk and church songs for the play. I think we ended up using half of what she suggested, but I could see from just reading the text that these songs were so rich and it's not really music that we hear anymore. So I thought that the music alone is enough to make this an exciting production."
The title page of Hurston's original script characterized Polk County as a Comedy of Negro Life on a Sawmill Camp With Authentic Negro Music. Music director Stephen Wade is a composer, performer, recording artist, and scholar of American folk music. For the score, Mr. Wade wrote some original compositions, along with his selection and arrangements of traditional songs. He also assembled a group of 'A-list' musicians who have made their careers playing blues, gospel and other early American folk music.
"What you have, though, is a lot of options in this quartet," he said. "There's slide guitar, and there's finger-pick guitar, and there's harmonica and so it gives that earth quality and that old-time 'reel' and things that came even before the blues, that occur in this show. At the same time there's also a jazzier dimension which the piano and trombone convey. And the difference between Saturday night and Sunday morning are very close in the world of this play and the world in which we live."
Zora Neale Hurston, who first gained fame as one of the leading writers during New York's Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s and '30s, had three successful decades of writing novels, short stories and plays. It remains unclear why her play, Polk County, which was written for a New York production in 1944, never made it to the stage. In recent years, however, Zora Neale Hurston's works have been the subject of great critical and public attention.
The world premier of Polk County has received unanimous praise from critics in Washington and around the country. One wonders if now, 58 years later, Zora Neale Hurston's Polk County will finally make its way to the New York stage.