Turpentine Jake

Set in the Florida Turpentine camps of the 1930s, this gritty tale of black workers under the “debt peonage” system is dramatized by the grandson of one of these workers, James E. Hurd Jr. (who also directs and stars), and Linda Bannister. The action centers on an accidental stabbing one night over a card game, fueling racial tensions as well as the escape plan of Jake (Hurd Jr.), who concocts a scheme with the Woods Witch (Carlin Smith), a nebulous figure who lives in the pine forest and deals in the occult (reminiscent of Bynum from August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone). Despite the rich source material, the play starts from a traditional dramatic premise before dissolving into a a series of vignettes which, their poetry and humor aside, put the brakes on what should be a riveting and dangerous story. Hurd Jr. and co-director Jim Holmes also shoulder some blame, as they don’t always push the talented cast into the uncomfortable emotional territory the subject demands. On the other hand, the scenic design (complete with Spanish moss and sawdust), along with the costumes and the props, is well crafted and transports us to the rustic South. Similarly, work songs interwoven into the plot add texture to the fabric of the story. Though the intentions of the creators are admirable and the story needs to be told, a rewrite could turn this meditation on injustice and folk wisdom into a piece that truly sings.
Fridays, Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m. Starts: Aug. 1. Continues through Aug. 24, 2008


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