AISLE SAY San Francisco


By Zora Neale Hurston & Dorothy Waring
Adapted by Kyle Donnelly & Cathy Madison
Directed by Kyle Donnelly
Presented by Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Roda Theatre
2015 Addison St., Berkeley, CA / (510) 647-2949

Reviewed by Judy Richter

"Polk County," a play by Zora Neale Hurston and Dorothy Waring, sat forgotten in the Library of Congress for 23 years until it was discovered and brought to vivid life by Kyle Donnelly and Cathy Madison. Now their adaptation is being presented by Berkeley Repertory Theatre in association with McCarter Theatre Center. Donnelly also directs this production, which includes some actors from the world premiere production by Arena Stage.

Hurston, a playwright and anthropologist who specialized in Southern folklore and music, sets this play with music in a sawmill in Polk County, Fla., during the late '20s. The characters are the black men who work in the mill and their women, who all live in company-supplied quarters. Music, especially the blues, plays an important role in their everyday lives. Hence, the play features traditional songs as well as new songs by Chic Street Man, who also serves as musical director.

With a terrific cast and an engaging story, "Polk County" offers an interesting insight into a community of people bound not only by their work but also by their love of music and colorful ways of expressing themselves. The plot focuses on Big Sweet (Kecia Lewis) and her man, Lonnie (Kevin Jackson), who take in a newcomer, young Leafy Lee (Tiffany Thompson), who was born at the camp but who has lived in New York most of her life. She's returned to find her father (a white man) and, more importantly, to learn more about blues music. She's come to the right place. The primary complication is Dicey Long (Perri Gaffney), who considers My Honey (Clinton Derricks-Carroll) her man, but the feeling is anything but mutual. Tensions rise when Leafy and My Honey are attracted to each other, intensifying Dicey's malevolence. The story has a happy ending, but happiest of all is the great music created by the 17-member cast, who sing and dance their way through 20 songs, accompanying themselves on guitar, piano, gut bucket, harmonica and other simple instruments, even spoons.

The cast also boasts some powerhouse voices, especially Lewis as Big Sweet. Her deep voice makes a masterpiece of the traditional "John Henry," joined by Leafy and the ensemble. Each actor creates a unique character, and each has at least one moment in the spotlight. Among them is the sinuous Deidre Goodwin as Ella Wall, Dicey's friend who's into voodoo and tries her best to make mischief.

The design team also contributes to the success of this show with Thomas Lynch's set design dominated by a giant mill wheel on one side and skylights overhead. Michael Krass' costumes, Allen Lee Hughes' lighting, Karin Graybash's sound and Dianne McIntyre's lively choreography all help to make "Polk County" a joyous celebration of a group of people and their music.

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