Polk County

Polk County

Polk County

Written by Zora Neale Hurston and Dorothy Waring
Adapted by Kyle Donnelly and Cathy Madison
Directed by Kyle Donnelly
In association with Lorraine Hansberry Theatre
Main Season · Roda Theatre
November 19, 2004–January 9, 2005
West Coast Premiere

Running time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission

In 1944, Harlem Renaissance legend Zora Neale Hurston deposited her script for Polk County in the U.S. Copyright Office. There it lay unseen and untouched—until 1997, when this musical was discovered in the Library of Congress. A testament to Hurston’s abilities as anthropologist, folklorist and writer, Polk County tells the story of aspiring blues musician Leafy Lee as she leaves New York to return to her childhood home in the working quarters of a sawmill camp in Polk County, Florida. With a rich cast of characters and a live band performing dozens of authentic early blues songs, Polk County is a musical guaranteed to lift the spirits. The extraordinary individuals of this rural hometown face the hardships of survival in the Depression-era South with a sense of humor and faith in the Blues, forming an unforgettable ensemble whose existence is seldom easy but always lived with gusto.

Creative team

Zora Neale Hurston · Playwright
Dorothy Waring · Playwright
Kyle Donnelly · Adaptor / Director
Cathy Madison · Adaptor
Chic Street Man · Original Music and Music Direction
Thomas Lynch · Scenic Design
Michael Krass · Costume Design
Allen Lee Hughes · Lighting Design
Karin Graybash · Sound Design
Dianne McIntyre · Choreographer
Rudy Roberson · Fight Director and Dance Captain
Alison Cote · Stage Manager
Alan Filderman · Casting


Eric L. Abrams · Quarters Boss
Mississippi Charles Bevel · Few Clothes
Carl Cofield · Sop-the-Bottom
Clinton Derricks-Carroll · My Honey
Doug Eskew · Stew Beef
Perri Gaffney · Dicey Long
Deidre Goodwin · Ella Wall
Gabrielle Goyette · Laura B.
Lynda Gravátt · Bunch (November 19–December 19)
Tonye Patano · Bunch (December 20–January 9)
Kevin Jackson · Lonnie
Marc Damon Johnson · Box Car
Michael Keck · Do-Dirty
Aliza Kennerly · Maudella
Kecia Lewis · Big Sweet
Rudy Roberson · Nunkie
Bill Sims, Jr. · Preacher
Tiffany Thompson · Leafy Lee

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Prologue: from the Artistic Director

Writers spend years developing their “voice”: that particular mixture of passion, thought, craft and intuition that is channeled through their use of language. Many embark on the journey to find a style which is original, but few seem able to match the myriad of possibilities at their disposal. Zora Neale Hurston is one such exception. Her words explode off of the page with a vibrant urgency demanding to be heard. Trained as an anthropologist, she writes as if on a dig, with a burning desire to unearth the mysteries that lay beneath the psychic fabric of her fictitious communities. She is in love with folklore and the folk who tell the stories, and she brings them to life in a manner so bold as to take one’s breath away.

Hurston’s interest in the rhythm and sound of words is further matched by her love of music. Polk County contains a potpourri of early blues songs and religious hymns from the heartland of the South. When we first heard the score, we were immediately struck by its authenticity. By turns joyous and mournful, celebratory and passionate, the music is memorable not only for its beautiful melodies but for its ability to speak to real human experience. As re-arranged by music master Chic Street Man, the Polk County score is not designed to bend to some formulaic concept about how a musical should work but instead invents its rules according to the dramatic needs of the text.

And those needs are indeed unique. Hurston, a controversial figure among many of her African-American colleagues, was unafraid to explore the psychology of survival. Her characters are neither driven nor liberated by ideology, but remain rooted in a time and place governed by racism. Whatever freedoms they earn come from the suffering and banality of everyday life rather than by easy rhetoric or mock-heroic actions. Time in Polk County is dominated by the simple action of finding a way to get through another day. Change comes, dramatic events occur, but Polk County—the place, the culture, the legacy—is bigger than the individuals who live there. In the hands of Zora Neale Hurston, it becomes the stuff of mythology.

Director Kyle Donnelly and her cast of actors and designers have thrown themselves into this project with a collective energy that matches the raucous demands of the play. Following Polk County’s resounding success in its first incarnation at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., Kyle has continued to re-work the score and the text. Our partners at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, NJ have joined us in this enormous undertaking, which we hope will fill you with a great sense of enjoyment.

Tony Taccone

Revival spirit: The fall and rise of Zora Neale Hurston

“Negro women are punished in these parts for killing men, but only if they exceed the quota. I don’t remember what the quota is. Perhaps I did hear but I forgot. One woman had killed five when I left the turpentine still where she lived. The sheriff was thinking of calling on her and scolding her severely.”—Zora Neale Hurston, from Mules and Men

“The force from somewhere in Space which commands you to write in the first place, gives you no choice. You take up the pen when you are told, and write what is commanded. There is no agony like bearing an untold story inside you.”—Zora Neale Hurston on writing

Zora Neale Hurston was born on January 7, 1891 in Notasulga, Alabama. During her lifetime, however, she often claimed that she was born in 1901 in Eatonville, Florida—the first incorporated black municipality in the United States, where Hurston’s family moved when she was very young. She was the fifth child of eight. Her father was a carpenter, sharecropper and Baptist preacher, and was elected mayor of the town for three terms. Her mother was a school teacher who died when Hurston was just 13 years old. That year, her father removed her from school to care for her brother’s children. Eager to leave that situation, she left home at 16 to work as a maid for a traveling theatre company that performed Gilbert and Sullivan operas.

In 1917, at the age of 26, Hurston attended Morgan Academy in Baltimore to finish high school. In 1920, she entered Howard University, earning an Associates Degree. Her first published story, “John Redding Goes to Sea,” appeared in the University’s literary magazine. In 1925, she submitted a story, “Spunk,” and a play, Color Struck, to Opportunity magazine’s literary contest and won second place honors. The editor of the magazine, Charles S. Johnson, encouraged her to move to New York City.

Hurston arrived in New York when the Harlem Renaissance was at its peak. There, she met other notable African-American writers, such as Langston Hughes, Jessie Fauset and Arna Bontemps. She took classes at Barnard College, where she began her study of anthropology, taking a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1928.

Hurston returned to Eatonville after college for anthropological field study. She collected folklore and made recordings in Florida and other areas of the South. During the Depression, she helped Alan Lomax document the folk music of Georgia, Florida and the Bahamas. She worked in the Caribbean with Lomax between 1935 and 1939. Later, she worked with the Federal Writer’s Project interviewing Floridians about their lives and culture, recording and collecting the diverse songs of her native state. Mules and Men (1935), one of her best-known folklore collections, was based on her research in the American South. Lomax called it “the greatest book of African-American folklore ever written.” She also collected folklore in Jamaica, Haiti, Bermuda and Honduras. In her book Tell My Horse (1938), she described folk customs in Haiti and Jamaica.

Hurston’s interest in folklore and her background in Florida provided ample raw material for her creative writing interests. One of her early theatre endeavors was the play Mule Bone: A Comedy of Negro Life in Three Acts (1931), which she wrote in collaboration with Langston Hughes. Unfortunately, the two authors had a misunderstanding over ownership of the text, and their friendship was forever damaged by it. The play was not published in its entirety until 1991. A theatrical project that did get off the ground was her revue, called The Great Day, which she wrote and staged in 1932 at the John Golden Theatre on Broadway.

The 1930s and 1940s were an intensely productive period in Hurston’s literary career. She completed graduate work at Columbia University during this time; she published four novels and an autobiography; she was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship. Hurston’s first novel Jonah’s Gourd Vine (1934), set in a small all-black Florida town, focused on the lives of two people conspicuously like her parents. Other major works of fiction followed: Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), Moses, Man of the Mountain (1939) and Seraph on the Suwanee (1948).

Despite increasing interest and praise from the white literati of New York during her career, Hurston was often criticized by members of the Black Arts Movement. She was criticized for accepting money from whites who supported her research and writing. Their Eyes Were Watching God was controversial because it didn’t conform to contemporary notions of black stories of her day. Dust Tracks on a Road struck some of her detractors as “assimilationist,” a view that was exacerbated by her depiction of white characters in Seraph on the Suwanee. On the other hand, she wrote about themes “too black” to appeal to a large white audience.

In her later years, interest in Hurston’s writing decreased, and her life was marked by hard work and struggle. In 1950, she moved to Belle Grade, Florida, where her health and finances began to falter. She continued to write articles for various local and national venues, plus three additional novels that were rejected for publication. Unable to make a living writing, she worked as a maid, a librarian and a substitute teacher to make ends meet. In 1959, she suffered a debilitating stroke and was forced to move to St. Lucie County Welfare Home. She died on January 28, 1960, nearly penniless and, for the most part, forgotten. She was buried in an unmarked grave in a segregated cemetery in Fort Pierce.

In 1973, the novelist and poet Alice Walker (The Color Purple) went on a pilgrimage to Florida in search of Hurston’s burial plot. She placed a marker on the grave that declared, in part, “Zora Neale Hurston, A Genius of the South.” Walker later wrote an article for Ms. magazine called “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston,” which brought international attention to the neglected author and revived interest in her writing. Since then, Zora Neale Hurston has been the subject of intense critical and public attention.

This is an edited version of an article by Arena Stage Senior Dramaturg Michael Kinghorn (2001–2004), which appeared in that theatre’s publication The Performance Journal in 2002. Reprinted with permission of Arena Stage.

Who was Dorothy Waring?

Zora Neale Hurston’s collaborator on Polk County was a white woman named Dorothy Waring. Waring was the wife of theatrical producer Stephen Kelen d’Oxdion, who was interested in developing a production of the play for Broadway, targeted for the autumn of 1944. Unfortunately, the production never materialized. Not much is written about Waring, or her husband, nor is much known about the nature of Waring’s contribution to the play. However, according to biographer Robert Hemenway, Waring and Hurston disagreed on the direction the play should take. Apparently, when Waring suggested that Hurston keep a sort of “Gershwinesque feeling,” to the musical, Hurston replied: “You don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.” Waring may have been the same Dorothy Waring who wrote American Defender (1935), a book about Samuel Dickstein, the New York Congressman and Supreme Court justice who spent his career fighting the Nazi movement in the U.S.. Waring herself may have been a Nazi infiltrator, and may have worked for Dickstein’s congressional committee assigned to gather information on Nazi party activities in the U.S. before and during World War II.

Excerpts from the writing of Zora Neale Hurston

From Mules and Men

Twelve miles below Kissimmee I passed under an arch that marked the Polk County line. I was in the famed Polk County.

How often had I heard “Polk County Blues.”

“You don’t know Polk County lak Ah do.
Anybody been dere, tell you de same thing too.”

I found out afterwards that during the Christmas holidays of 1926 Babe had shot her husband to death, had fled to Tampa where she had bobbed her hair and eluded capture for several months but had been traced thru letters to her mother and been arrested and lodged in Bartow jail. After a few months she had been allowed to come home and the case was forgotten.

…About that time you see a light in every shack. Ever kitchen is scorching up fat-back and hoe-cake. Nearly every skillet is full of corn-bread. But some like biscuit-bread better. Break your hoe-cake half in two. Half on the plate, half in the dinner-bucket. Throw in your black-eyed peas and fat meat left from supper and your bucket is fixed. Pour meat grease in your plate with plenty of cane syrup. Mix it and sop it with your bread. A big bowl of coffee, a drink of water from the tin dipper in the pail. Grab your dinner-bucket and hit the grit. Don’t keep the straw-boss waiting.

From Dust Tracks on a Road

My search for knowledge of things took me into many strange places and adventures…I could have been maimed or killed on most any day of the several years of my research work. Primitive minds are quick to sunshine and quick to anger. Some little word, look or gesture can move them either to love or to sticking a knife between your ribs…In some instances, there is nothing personal in the killing. The killer wishes to establish a reputation as a killer, and you’ll do as a sample…

…If a man or a woman has been on the gang for petty-thieving and mere mayhem, and is green with jealousy of the others who did the same amount of time for a killing and had something to brag about, why not look around for an easy victim and become a hero, too? I was nominated like that once in Polk County, Florida, and the only reason that I was not elected, was because a friend got in there and staved off old club-footed Death…

Polk County. Black men laughing and singing. They go down in the phosphate mines and bring up the wet dust of the bones of pre-historic monsters, to make rich land in far places, so that people can eat…

Polk County. Black men from tree to tree among the lordly pines, a swift, slanting stroke to bleed the trees for gum. Paint, explosives, marine stores, flavors, perfumes, tone for a violin bow, and many other things which the black men who bleed the trees never heard about…

Polk County. The clang of nine-pound hammers on railroad steel. The world must ride…

Polk County. Black men scrambling up ladders into orange trees. Singing, laughing, cursing, boasting of last night’s love, and looking forward to the darkness again…

Polk County. After dark, the jooks. Songs are born out of feelings with an old beat-up piano, or a guitar for a mid-wife. Love made and unmade. Who put out dat lie, it was supposed to last forever? Love is when it is. No more here? Plenty more down the road. Take you where I’m going, woman? Hell no! Let every town furnish its own. Eah, I’m going. Who care anything about no train fare? The railroad truck is there, ain’t it? I can count tires just like I been doing. I can ride de blind, can’t I?…

Polk County in the jooks. Dancing the square dance. Dancing the scrunch. Dancing the bell-rub. Knocking the right hat off the wrong head, and backing it up with a switch blade.

Polk County: A rediscovered gem

In 1997, a retired copyright expert at the Library of Congress embarked on an effort to locate unpublished works by master writers in unsorted bins located in the bowels of the world’s largest library. This intrepid researcher’s name is John Wayne. He decided to focus his search on his favorite writer, Zora Neale Hurston, and ended up discovering 10 unpublished works, most of which have never received professional productions.

I came into the picture when the Washington Post ran an article on the discovery. Kyle Donnelly and I were excited about the Zora Neale Hurston find at the Library of Congress, and we agreed that I should go to the Library and look at the plays. I visited the collection and read all 10 works; after a couple of days of wearing white gloves and turning the pages of yellowing, dissolving scripts, I ran across the gem Polk County. I felt like I had struck gold! Before me read a vibrant and funny work, depicting the lives and loves of black laborers in a north-central Florida sawmill lumber camp during the late 1920s. I laughed out loud in the pristine Rare Book and Manuscript Room of the Library as I read the words of these rural southern blacks, leaping off the page with electricity. Besides richly imagistic and witty dialogue, the play also boasts about 20 classic and lesser-known early blues, folk, country and religious songs. I was astonished and disheartened that no one had professionally produced this multi-layered work.

Everyone to whom I introduced Polk County at Arena immediately fell in love with it—most especially Kyle—but there was definite hesitation about the play’s size (it was a three-hour read, and that does not include the addition of 20 musical numbers) and the fact that it was an unknown quantity. However, during a three-year period, in which Kyle and I continually pitched the show to Arena, the Library of Congress was readying to celebrate its bicentennial. Another Zora Neale Hurston enthusiast, Alice Birney, the literary manuscript historian of the Library, was looking for a theatre to stage a concert production of one of the “found” Hurston plays at the Library. In a series of propitious events, the Library and Arena collaborated on a concert reading of Polk County at the Library’s elegant Coolidge Auditorium. The event was a resounding success, with packed houses and standing ovations over two nights of readings. Molly Smith, Arena’s artistic director, decided after the second night of the reading that Arena would produce a full production of the play. Five years of perseverance had finally paid off for Kyle and me.

Cathy Madison served as literary manager of Arena Stage for seven seasons. She is a regular funding panelist for the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities and teaches a theatre class to public high school students. Cathy received her MFA in dramaturgy from Columbia University. She has worked as a fundraiser for an anti-hunger group and is currently a fundraiser for the Smithsonian. Cathy hails from the South Bronx.



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