Election Section

A Play Forgotten 60 Years Ago Comes To Life in Berkeley Rep Production By BETSY M. HUNTON

Special to the Planet
Friday December 03, 2004

Berkeley Repertory is joining in a production called Polk County with Princeton’s McCarter Theatre, and here it is, the East Coast cast, same director, same staging, same everything. It sounds as if the Rep is getting off pretty easy. But it turns out that it isn’t all that easy at all, as we’ll get into later. The question now is, what’s the reason for all the hoopla?  

The reason is that it’s a very big deal. Make that a very big deal. It’s not only the first West Coast showing of a play by Zora Neale Hurston, a major writer from the period of creative flowering between the two World Wars known as the Harlem Renaissance. She was also, as you may have grasped, a woman. And a black woman. She’s a significant writer whose prominence has been re-established in the years since 1973 when the renowned author Alice Walker brought her back into public attention. 

But Polk County was totally lost. It was part of a group of 10 mostly unproduced manuscripts that Hurston placed with the Library of Congress for copyrighting in 1944. She never came back. Zora Neale Hurston died in poverty in 1960. 

What happened then sounds classically romantic; years later, a retired librarian named John Wayne decided to spend time checking out unpublished and overlooked manuscripts in the Library of Congress. (Cathy Madison, who shares honors with director Kyle Donnelly in the play’s rescue from oblivion, says that there are over 250,000 unpublished manuscripts at the Library of Congress “waiting to be discovered.”) Understandably, Wayne chose to focus his work one of his favorite writers, Hurston, and located 10 mostly unproduced, all unpublished, plays.  

Madison, who at that time was literary manager at Washington’s Arena Stage, seems to be “the first person from theater to have actually read the manuscript.” Turned on by a minor piece in the Washington Post, she and Kyle Donnelly (director and co-adaptor of the Princeton-Berkeley production and at that time the associate artistic director at Arena) agreed to look into the Hurston find, and they both fell in love with the play.  

It took about five years for them to convince the artistic director at Arena to produce it. Madison was understandably reluctant to chance the play as it appears in the manuscript. Estimates of its uncut length are that it would run up to about four and a half hours. She says that it took her three hours just to read the play and points out that there are twenty songs in addition to the dialogue. 

There was work to be done before it could be presented to a contemporary audience. 

After Arena co-produced a public reading at the library in 2000 which was a smash success, the artistic director became more enthusiastic about the play’s stage potential and Kyle Donnelly directed the first production at Washington’s Arena stage. It won the Helen Hayes Award for Best New Musical. 

Donnelly then went to Princeton’s Mathews Theatre at the McCarter Theatre Center, where she worked with the Berkeley Rep to polish the play into the production that we can now see at the Berkeley Rep. 

Will Leggit, the Rep’s production manager, quickly shoots down ideas that a co-production such as the one that is on stage here means little more than splitting the costs. He describes a process in which the Berkeley staff was actively involved in significant decisions about the play’s presentation. It seems to be a process which varies from one such production to another, depending upon the individuals involved.  

The idea of such close cooperation between artistic people with so much at stake is a mind-boggling concept in itself, but the relatively simple task of organizing the cross-continent transportation and living arrangements seems daunting enough. Arranging to collect a director, seventeen actors with who knows how many musical instruments per actor, a huge stage set and, no doubt, other stuff, too, (and maybe more people. Who’s counting? The lead actress, Kecia Lewis, does a smashing job in between bouts at home with her 1-year old child.) 

We will ignore the issue of providing housing for this small mob for over eight weeks. Leggit dismisses the problem with a casual, “We have that, and the McCarter doesn’t. That’s why we brought them here, rather than the other way around” 

Perhaps the ultimate surprise in it all is Leggit’s explanation that the reason that theaters are presenting an increasing number of co-productions is that “It’s an economy measure.”