Thursday, April 4, 2002
Washington A play by Zora Neale Hurston about the lives and loves of blacks in a Florida lumber mill village, its typescript rediscovered after a half-century at the Library of Congress, is running at one of the capital's leading theaters.
"Polk County'' comes from the Harlem Renaissance that bloomed between the two world wars. It went to the library in 1944. Researchers found it in 1997 with nine other Hurston plays among 450,000 typescripts registered as unpublished during most of the 20th century.
A prominent black writer in the first half of the century, Hurston studied at Columbia University under Franz Boas, sometimes called the father of American anthropology. Research took her through the South, where she learned the peculiarities and poetry of rural black speech and music. Both are prominent features of "Polk County.''
The music ranges from two-step to gospel, chosen by the playwright and researched and arranged by music director Stephen Wade. He has composed some additional numbers, in the popular Southern tradition.
Characters have names like "Big Sweet,'' "My Honey,'' "Stew Beef'' and "Few Clothes.''
"Everyone lives temporary,'' Hurston wrote in an extended stage direction. "They go from job to job, or from job to jail and from jail to job. Working, loving temporarily and often without thought of permanence in anything, wearing their switchblade knives and guns as a habit like the men of the Old West, fighting, cutting and being cut ... these refugees from life see nothing unlovely in the sordid camp.''
The play opened last month at Arena Stage, one of the leaders in American not-for-profit theater, where it will run through May 12. Hurston, who was black, wrote it in collaboration with Dorothy Waring, about whom the producers have found little information except that she was a white woman married to a theatrical producer.
"The discovery of the unpublished Hurston play scripts radically changed scholarly appraisal of this important Harlem Renaissance author,'' said Alice Birney, a specialist in American literary history at the library. "It now seems that the theater may have been her best medium for integrating folklore, autobiography and music ...
"Rather than musicals, her plays are comedies with music ï¿½ theater about people for whom making music was a natural and important part of their lives.''
Praised by white critics, Hurston was controversial in the black community.
"Her characters eat and laugh and cry and work and kill,'' wrote novelist Richard Wright, author of "Native Son.'' "They swing like a pendulum eternally in that safe and narrow orbit in which America likes to see the Negro live, between laughter and tears.''