by Sam Juliano
When the curtain rises on August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, Seth is complaining to his wife Bertha about Bynum, a tenant in their Pittsburgh boardinghouse who kills pigeons for his African rituals. Seth and Bertha also commiserate about Seth’s night position at the steel mill, and his third job as a tinsmith, fabricating items sold to him by the white peddler, Rutherford Selig. Seth would actually go into the tinsmithing business himself, but cannot get approved for a loan unless he forfeits the boardinghouse, which he refuses to do. Selig stops by for his weekly Saturday business visit, buys some pots from Seth and puts in an order for some dustpans. Bynum asks Selig about the shiny man that he paid Selig–a people finder–to find for him.
Thus begins the third of Wilson’s “Century Cycle” set in 1911, of ten plays, which comprises his complete artistic output, and which chronicles ten decades of life in Pittsburgh’s “Hill District” among African-Americans that is mythic in its compelling transcription of the black experience. The title of the play basically symbolizes the American socialized system of oppression, whereby “Joe Turner” is “incarceration”, (Turner is actually a notorious Tennessee plantation owner who illegally enslaved African-Americans to work for him.) and Herald Loomis at the outset is simultaneously searching for his wife and daughter and his inner-self.
The work, which was nominated for six Tony Awards in 1988, including Best Play (it lost out to David Hwang’s M. Butterfly) is being helmed by Bartlett Sher, who uses a minimalist set, similar to the 1988 production, except that it favors interior scenes, unlike it’s predecessor. The stage is basically an open first-floor living room, with a kitchen to the left rear and the door to the outside stage right. Behind the furniture is a long staircase to upstairs bedrooms, all rather conventional, as befits this modest abode. The decor is a bit stylish is his use of shapes, but is mainly unobtrusive, intent rightfully to let the extraordinary dialogue dominate. Chad L. Coleman brings vast experience to the role of Harold Loomis, having previously appeared in five other Wilson plays including the most recent, Radio Golf, two years ago. Coleman inhibits this enigmatic character with a winning combination of charisma and verisimilitude. When he says “I been wandering a long time in somebody else’s world’ it’s believable. Roger Robinson dazzles as Bynum Walker, the soft-spoken, philosophical “root worker,” the dealer in herbs and potions who guides Loomis from darkness to light. As Seth Holly, the boardinghouse owner, Ernie Hudson is a captivating presence, as he is both a man touched by God, and one who is also rooted in ‘the earthy,’ and his wife Bertha is played by Latanya Richardson Jackson in a commanding performance in more ways than one.
At times the play is riotous, and at other moments melancholy, but that’s really the fabric of all the play’s in the cycle, which all exhibit a wider scope, examining humanity on a grand scale. At it’s center, it’s the story of Loomis and Bynum. They share a vision of bones arising from the sea, walking on water and arriving as fully-formed bodies, which is a rather obvious reference to slaves who died while traveling across the Atlantic Ocean. Says Loomis in the most vivid passage: “I come to this place……to this water that was bigger than the whole world…..And I looked out and I seen these bones rise up out of the water. Rise up and begin to walk on top of it. A wave washes the bone people up on land and they have flesh and skin…..They black. Just like you and me. Ain’t no difference.” On this front, Bynum tries to make Loomis formulate his experience in terms of language and song rather than special imagery.
Wilson’s final scenes show the revamped way he treats woman in the play by having Zonia as a central agent of change, but Bynum actually delivers earlier on a very beautiful speech about women, and their spiritual essence.
The veteran Sher utilizes excellent pacing, which keeps much of the dialogue moving in rapid-fire fashion. The original production, for all it’s assets, was lugubrious at times. The lighting design, always vital in Wilson’s metaphorical works, is exquisite as are the period clothes.
Joe Turner may have indeed come and gone. But New York City theatre goers must surely be grateful he’s back in this splendid new production of this piece de resistance by the great August Wilson.
Note: I saw “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” on Wednesday, March 25th, at the Belasco Theatre in Manhattan. Bob and Lucille obtained pictures and autographs with the major players afterwards, as I secured the car from a distance. The performance brought back memories to the original staging, but this one had a spirit and allure all it’s own.