Joe Turner's Come and Gone and, on April 16 at the Belasco, come again — but he has yet to set foot on a stage. August Wilson spent his 60 years on this planet chronicling the African-American experience in the 20th century, taking it one decade at a time for a full ten-play cycle, completed just months before his death in October of 2005.
The title of the saga that chronologically comes second in the cycle came from a mournful little dirge that made the rounds among the Memphis womenfolk lamenting the abrupt (and unlawful) loss of their men to enforced work camps.
The year is 1911, 49 years after Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation and 97 years before Barack Obama was elected President. One of the ways the South coped with the catastrophic effects of freed slaves from the Reconstruction period on was through men like Joe Turner — and there were many men like Joe Turner — who rounded up blacks and railroaded them into work camps for seven years.
Herald Loomis (Chad L. Coleman), the brooding central figure of Joe Turner's Come and Gone, bears the mark of Turner, having served his seven years and set out to resume his cruelly interrupted life by finding his wife (Danai Gurira) — a task he hands Rutherford Selig (Arliss Howard), a peddler and "first-class people finder."
Before his incarceration, he was a deacon in the Abundant Life Church, but now, broken, in his black hat and black topcoat, Loomis looms like The Grim Reaper, spooking the residents at the Pittsburgh boardinghouse where he has temporarily settled for $2 a week, with two meals a day included. The establishment is run by a hard-nosed Seth Holly (Ernie Hudson) and his kind-hearted wife, Bertha (LaTanya Richardson Jackson), both of whom take to the stranger in opposite ways.
Overlapping triangles spin like fans at the boardinghouse. A wannabe guitarist working on a road crew, Jeremy Furlow (Andre Holland), invites a straight-laced lass, Mattie Campbell (Marsha Stephanie Blake) to move in with him, then leaves her high-and-dry with a pathetically polite doff of the hat for a more direct hussy, Molly Cunningham (Aunjanue Ellis). With Loomis breathing down her neck, Mattie weathers the loss, while his young daughter, Zonia (Amari Rose Leigh), finds love at the first-kiss level with the boy next door, Reuben Scott (Michael Cummings).
Presiding over these chaotic goings-on is Bynum Walker (Roger Robinson), a rootworker and African-American Polonius-in-residence where Wilson stored most of his play's wisdom. Note especially the plain-spoken poetry of his lilting riff on how the love of a good woman has a transforming effect on a man. Walker's a great believer in singing your own song. "When a man forgets his song, he goes off in search of it — till he find out he's got it with him all the time." It is he who breaks into the play's "title tune," sending Loomis in knife-wielding fury. "You forgot how to sing your song," he tells Loomis — and the play becomes a matter of getting his song back.
"There are several versions of the song," Robinson relayed at the after-party held a few doors down from the Belasco on a whole floor of the Millennium Hotel. "It's authentic, but this is the version that they happened to pick for the show."
A Tony nominee for Wilson's Seven Guitars in 1996, this is Robinson's sixth Wilson play. "August has so many poetic speeches in this play, and he gives many of them to Bynum. We're blessed to have August's body of work. He is going to be performed through the ages, just like Chekhov and Shakespeare and Tennessee Williams."
Robinson's rendition of the Joe Turner song is not destined for the charts — try to find a melody! — and it's not the sort of follow-up one would expect from the director who just brought "Some Enchanted Evening" to Broadway, Tony-winning Bartlett Sher. And the one big musical moment in the show — a call-and-response dance called The Juba where the whole cast really goes to town — is something he credits entirely to Diane McIntyre, "a very distinguished and fantastic African-American choreographer who was amazing to come to work with us on that particular part."
[flipbook] Pittsburgh, where all but one of Wilson's plays are set, never looked better than how Sher re-imagined it, with the help of his South Pacific design team: Michael Yeargan (on abstract, freefalling sets) and Catherine Zuber (on well-research costumes).
"I did not see the original show, but I've seen the sets," Sher said. "It was much more naturalistic, much more realistic, than what I wanted to do. I was just trying to match a space which just worked with the poetry to balance the mystical backdrop of the play with the internal naturalism of Pittsburgh. I was trying to meld the two."
Another new thing for the revival: he is the first white man to direct an August Wilson play in NYC. "I don't think of it that way," he replied. "All I know is that it's a great play. It's a great American play, and Andre Bishop and I worked a long time looking for something to do, and it really felt like this time was the right time for it to come back and be done. It's a particular favorite of mine. And I did my graduate work in African theatre so it was a mixture of the two. I can balance the two things."
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