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Rediscovering an American Playwright

Author, anthropologist and folklorist Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960) died in obscurity. Sometimes called the “Mother of the Harlem Renaissance,” Hurston deposited 10 playscripts with the U.S. Copyright Office in the Library of Congress between 1925 and 1944.

Zora Neale Hurston, half-length portrait, standing, facing front, looking at book, American Stuff, at New York Times Book Fair Gordon Parks, photographer. “Portrait of Langston Hughes,” 1943

With the exception of “Mule-Bone,” the 10 plays were all unpublished when they were rediscovered in the Library of Congress in 1997. At that time, only Polk County was at all familiar to scholars on the basis of copies in other repositories. Hurston’s achievements remained in eclipse until Alice Walker's 1973 pilgrimage to find and mark Hurston’s grave in Fort Pierce, Fla.

Even her rediscovery, however, celebrated Hurston's achievements as a novelist and folklorist rather than as a dramatist. Little was known about her theatrical career until 1998, when scholarly publications began to reflect the drama discoveries announced by the Library of Congress. (Hurston’s achievements as a folklorist are in evidence in the “Voices from the Days of Slavery” presentation, which you can read about in the “Voices” article in this month’s Wise Guide.)

A series of in-house Library staff lunch-hour readings followed the plays’ rediscovery. They began with the sketch "Woofing" (slang for giving a humorous verbal insult), progressed in 1998 to monthly readings of each of “Spunk's” three acts, and finished in 1999 with the first act of “Meet the Mamma.” The unrehearsed readings were so popular that the Library of Congress co-produced two public concert readings of “Polk County” in December 2000 in its Coolidge auditorium, featuring archival materials from the Library and artistic talent from Washington's Arena Stage. The production honored the Library of Congress's bicentennial and Arena Stage's 50th anniversary.

The great success of these public readings led in turn to a full production of Polk County, enhanced with music, at Arena Stage in the spring of 2002. In preparation for it, dramaturge Cathy Madison and director Kyle Donnelly created an original adaptation from Hurston's long text. The music was researched and recreated by Stephen Wade, a folk-song and banjo specialist long associated with both Arena Stage and the Library of Congress Archive of Folk Culture. The production was a success with both audiences and critics.

You can read Polk County (which Hurston wrote with Dorothy Waring) and the other plays in “The Zora Neale Hurston Plays at the Library of Congress.”

A "Zora Neale Hurston Chronology” briefly documents her varied and fascinating life with text as well as images of Hurston and her associates, including fellow writer Langston Hughes, with whom she wrote “Mule-Bone: A Comedy of Negro Life.”

You can hear Hurston’s voice in recordings she made for the Work Progress Administration in the late ’30s and early ’40s. For example, in “Georgia Skin,” she describes the card game of the same name, "the most favorite gambling game among the workers of the South." This recording is from the American Memory presentation “Florida Folklife from the WPA Collections.”

A. [Zora Neale Hurston, half-length portrait, standing, facing front, looking at book, American Stuff, at New York Times Book Fair], 1937. Prints and Photographs Division. Reproduction information: Reproduction No.: LC-USZ62-126945 (b&w film copy neg.); Call No.: LOT 13325-17, no. 6 [item] [P&P]

B. Gordon Parks, photographer. “Portrait of Langston Hughes,” 1943. Prints and Photographs Division. Reproduction information: reproduction No.: LC-USW3-033841-C DLC (b&w film neg.); Call No.: LC-USW3- 033841-C

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