I saw the original production in New York with Lawrence Fishburn in 1988 and hated it. The first act of this production made me wonder why I felt that way. The second act made me remember. And even with that, I think this is a fine production.
Joe Turner is one of the plays that comprises August Wilsonï¿½d bequest to the nation. Wilson set out tow write a chronicle of African American life. He declared his goal and then went about achieving it. It is this achievement of ten plays that holds him in place as one of Americaï¿½s great playwrights.
This is the story of Bertha and Seth Holly in Pittsburgh. It is 1911 and they rent out rooms in a house that has been in the family for three generations. Although they have no children of their own, they have created a family of residents that is as complicated as any tied by blood. The rock of this family, played here with an extraordinary combination of grace and fortitude by Roger Robinson, is Bynum, so called because he binds together that which is meant to be bound. Bynum sees when a little assistance is required in life, but is also the first to acknowledge that he can make no difference when things are meant to fall asunder.
Swirling around Bynum and his pigeons and herbs and spells is an eclectic mix of people who never quite connect to one another in a way that moves the narrative along. Jeremy Furlow (Andre Holland), is a young man with a roaming eye and spirit; Mattie Campbell, presented with a wonderful combination of innocence and directness by Marsha Stephanie Blake, has just been left by her husband and ripe for a new relationship; Molly Cunningham (Aunjanue Ellis), is a woman who takes men when it pleases her and leaves them in the same manner. Then there is Herold Loomis (Chad L. Coleman) and his daughter, Zonia (Amari Rose Leigh) who arrive at the party in a dark silent cloud. He is searching for his wife who disappeared while he was held prisoner by Joe Turner, an iconic reference to white men who captured free black men and held them as work prisoners. He has been searching for years and is a man haunted by his visions and his reality.
One might suggest that none of these people connect because this is a story of transience. Pittsburgh was close enough to the South to receive its people, but far north enough to be someplace else. Even Molly who is a woman with no roots says she will go ï¿½anywhere but southï¿½. These are people an inch removed from slavery, living in a viciously racist world, who cling to each other with one eye on the door. Nothing is secure. No one is safe.
Bartlett Sherï¿½s direction does everything to bring these people together. All the action happens in one large communal space, brilliantly conceived by Michael Yeargan and lit by Brian MacDevitt. Conversations are overheard and secrets revealed in plain sight. Even at the last when the walls and furniture slip out of sight there is a center to the universe on the bare stage.
Still, the writing itself is not as noteworthy as the Wilsonï¿½s achievement of the ten play cycle. Joe Turner soars one moment, and becomes an aria ï¿½ especially in the skilled hands of Roger Robinson. The next moment the text stumbles over its own shoelaces. Sub-plot follow sub-plot in this long play, and the climax involving Bible thumping and blood letting leaves you exhausted but not at all clear on what the heck just happened. The characters donï¿½t come across as individuals as much as they do archetypes, and flow from one emotional arena to another like scarves in a storm.
It is best if you donï¿½t try and figure it all out. Instead, I suggest you sit back and bask in the glow of the larger picture unfolding, and in particular Roger Robinsonï¿½s performance. The weaknesses in the script become secondary because this is a master at work. He screws his courage to the sticking place, and no matter the twists and turns will guide you safely through. His railroad is secure, and he serves Joe Turner as an able magician.
The Civil War may have ended in 1865, and the 13th amendment to the U. S. Constitution officially passed, but 46 years was no where enough time for the sons and daughters of the newly freed slaves to figure out where they belonged, who they could trust, and what they should do now.
Such is the time frame and setting of August Wilson's "Joe Turner's Come and Gone," the second in the playwright's cycle of 10 plays chronicling each decade of African-American life in the 20th century, with nine of them set in Pittsburgh, a city that experienced a large influx of Southern blacks. ("Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" was set in Chicago.)
In 1911, though the conflict continued to rage between blacks and whites, it was even more intense between Northern citified blacks and their down-home country cousins who traveled north with a Bible, a guitar, a song in their heart and little else to prepare them for hard life in the steel mills of the city.
Like strangers in a strange land, they carried with them the overstuffed baggage that held the pain of ignominious servitude. They descended from families that were split apart by the slave owners, making it nearly impossible for them to contact their loved ones.
Such was the case for Herald Loomis who, with his young daughter Zonia, happens upon the Pittsburgh boarding house of Seth and Bertha Holly. Seth mistrusts this foreboding stranger dressed in a long black coat and oversized black hat, as he explains he once was a minister and is looking for his wife, Martha. They haven't seen each other in 11 years and Loomis won't rest till he finds her.
Begrudgingly, Seth rents him a room and Bertha takes Zonia under her wing, giving her chores and a purpose, while Loomis goes out every day to look for his wife.
In a brilliant combination of superstitious mumbo-jumbo, herbs, and soothsaying, Loomis takes hope from old conjurer Bynum Walker who understands exactly where the man is coming from, and the "people-finder," peddler Rutherford Selig who claims he can find anyone -- for a price. Together, they try and persuade Loomis to just let it go, and move on, but he can't.
The old songs take over, and the ballad of Joe Turner rears its ugly head. Turner was notorious for falsely imprisoning blacks, holding them indefinitely, and forcing them into hard labor. Loomis was one of Joe Turner's boys, and he kept him for seven years. Like so many others, Loomis now has to try and put his life back together. But his demons still raise their monstrous heads and haunt his dreams till he can't take it no more.
Though Loomis has the most powerful presence in this play, each of the other boarders in the rooming house has a story to tell that's worth hearing. Jeremy wants to make music both with his guitar and with women, as many as will have him. Mattie, whose husband has just upped and walked out, moves into Jeremy's room because she hates to be alone. And gorgeous Molly vamps her way into the group and Seth must remind her that he runs a respectable house as she slithers up and down the stairs, and men's legs.
Ernie Hudson is the rock of the play as Seth Holly, Northern entrepreneur who understands what hard work it takes to be successful in the city. Father figure and family man, he holds them all together for six dollars a week including breakfast.
Latanya Richardson Jackson, as Bertha, has enough love for all of them and complements Hudson well. Roger Robinson steals the show as Bynum Walker with just enough mystery to make us all wonder if he can do what he says. But it's Chad Coleman as Loomis, a newcomer to the Broadway stage, who is the most riveting.
"Joe Turner's Come and Gone" is a haunting drama that Wilson claimed was his favorite. Bartlett Sher's direction keeps the integrity of the original but with a sense of urgency of the present. We're reminded, as in "Irena's Vow," that we can never let such atrocities happen again, and we can say with pride that we have moved on.
Barbara Mehlman & Geri Manus
What the press had to say.....
"Itï¿½s an (almost) unconditional pleasure to watch."
New York Times
"It's all expertly played in Lincoln Center's eloquent revival"
New York Daily News
"superb production captures all of the emotional and stylistic nuances of the play
New York Post
"It is not their fault (actors) if some of the spottily seen characters are, like the unseen Joe Turner, a bit too fleeting in their coming and going."
"Wilson's dialogue has its own majestic music, and the actors here are intuitive players."
"a gorgeous production"
"excellent revival" & "beautifully realized in a production thatï¿½s been directed with warmth and clarity"
David Cote Time Out New York
"a production of piercing depth and shimmering beauty."