The school superintendent, who initially cancelled the production, raised questions last week about the Waterbury Arts Magnet School's intention to produce the play in early February, citing Wilson's use of the racial slur "nigger" in his script. The heralded play chronicles a former slave's journey north to Pittsburgh in search of his wife with his small daughter in tow.
The Waterbury Board of Education held a public meeting Jan. 19, allowing parents and school officials to voice their opinions about presenting the play in an educational environment. Superintendent David L. Snead's concern was that the script would encourage use of the slur. For the record, Wilson's text never makes use of the term as an attack on any of the characters, but is used to historically portray the language used at the time.
Yale Repertory Theatre artistic director James Bundy spoke in support of the production during the meeting. (Joe Turner was developed at Yale Rep). The meeting also included the reading of a letter by American Theater Wing executive director Howard Sherman, who also blogged about the controversy.
"I must say that it is my deepest hope that August Wilson’s words will be allowed to be heard within the Waterbury school system and that students, on stage and off, will have the opportunity and indeed the necessity of struggling with all of his words, those that hurt as well as those that heal," Sherman posted Jan. 17. "Great art is not always pretty, or easy, or even correct. But if students are denied the work of August Wilson, it is not just bowdlerizing the words of a work in the public domain, available in countless other editions (like Twain). They may be denied an opportunity to embody the history, literature and artistry that August Wilson brought to the stage, and cordoning off the world of one of America’s greatest theatrical voices from those most eager to explore it and those who would undoubtedly benefit from it. That this could happen only a few miles from where Wilson’s work was first heard by theatergoers before going on to national and international fame would be an added insult."
School officials ultimately rescinded the decision to cancel the Feb. 4, 5, 6 and 10 performances, after asking the director, Nina A. Smith, to align with Yale Rep and Hartford Stage on the production. The theatres will offer guidance and also aid in presenting pre-show and post-performance discussions with the audience and students. Each play in late playwright August Wilson's Century Cycle documents a decade in the history of African-American culture during the 20th century, beginning with Gem of the Ocean, 1904; through Broadway's recent Radio Golf, 1997. The majority of Wilson's plays are set in the Pittsburgh Hill District where the playwright was born and raised.
The original production of Joe Turner's Come and Gone premiered on Broadway March 18, 1988, at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, running for 105 performances. Under the direction of Lloyd Richards, the production earned Tony nominations for Best Play, Best Director, Best Featured Actor and took the Best Featured Actress Tony Award for L. Scott Caldwell.
Bartlett Sher directed the Tony Award-nominated 2009 revival of the play, which garnered a Best Supporting Actor Tony Award for Roger Robinson. The 2009 revival of Joe Turner also holds the honor of being the first Broadway production to be attended by President and First Lady Barack and Michelle Obama. Following his Tony acceptance speech, cast member Roger Robinson said he was struck by the irony that the President's first visit to a Broadway show occurred at the century-old Belasco, a theatre that was built with a separate entrance for African-Americans: "I appreciate the irony, and I think [playwright] August Wilson would have appreciated the irony . . . . Only in this wonderful country could that happen."
For Joe Turner tickets, visit WAMSNews.org.