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."
He has the vote of Ruben Santiago-Hudson, who won his Tony for Seven Guitars and in recent years helmed several Wilson revivals: "Bart is a wonderful director. There are black directors who can't direct August, so I don't think it's about black or white. I'm a director, and I would direct it differently also — not any better or any worse. Things that are more important to me probably aren't important to him. Things that are important to him aren't important to me. We always look forward to welcoming the next person to the August Wilson family, so we welcome Bart." These days, Santiago-Hudson is wearing both hats — actor and director. He has been asked to repeat his recent Encores! role of a white bigot turned black, "but I have not made a decision." His energies are going toward directing Naomi Wallace's Things of Dry Hours, which begins rehearsals April 21 for a June 8 opening at New York Theatre Workshop. It stars Delroy Lindo, the original Herald Loomis. "He'll be in town so he'll see Joe Turner. We love August, and we support him at all costs."
The original 1988 Broadway production of Joe Turner, directed by Lloyd Richards, ran only 105 performances, but that was enough to get nominations for Best Play, Lindo and three featured actresses: Kimberleigh Aarn, Kimberly Scott and L. Scott Caldwell in roles being played now by Blake, Scott and Jackson. Caldwell won.
From the get-go, Jackson is the earth-mother life-force of the boardinghouse — and play. She clearly revels in the role of Bertha. "I appreciate every day she comes. She's full. She has some of everything going for her. She holds all of us together. She cries for us. She laughs for us. She's a well-rounded woman. The only thing she's missing is kids, so everyone who comes in contact with her sorta becomes her child in a way."
"I have had an incredible time working with Bart and this ensemble. You know, we learned a lot along the way, just trying to hone the process itself and mining the character. I can't say how excited I am just being in New York. To get to work a piece this incredible with the people I get to work with is beyond anything I could ask for.
"It has been 20 years since I've been in New York. When I was here doing theatre, we thought of Broadway as musicals because there were not that many African-American plays on Broadway then. That's something else that August has done. Everybody looks forward to at least one show that's going to be an African-American show for the year so I appreciate him more than he knows. Perhaps he does." She and seven others are only now getting around to making their Broadway debuts. (Robinson, Blake and Ellis have prior Broadway credits but blend in seamlessly with the rest of the cast.)
Hudson, a "Ghostbuster" from way back, was particularly pleased to be a late-blooming Broadwayite. "I did a lot of plays here," the actor recalled. "I never did Broadway, but I always wanted to. It just never really came up, and then finally Bartlett Sher — I have to give him all the credit — asked me if I would do this play. Right now, a lot of the roles I've been doing in Hollywood I haven't really felt connected to, and I wanted something different, and this was the perfect thing."
Running the boardinghouse with lots of bark and authority, Hudson proves to be a real engine for the show as Seth Holly. "I feel like it's a relay," he said, undercutting it a bit. "He sorta runs the first lap, and, after that, somebody else takes over, but it's great to be a part of it. I love this role. It's kind of a tribute to my uncle. I had an Uncle Ernest, who had a home where all the relatives from the South came up and stayed with him until they finally got themselves together and moved on — very much like this character. He's a very down-to-earth guy but a little paranoid — and he was very funny, not intentionally. This character reminded me a lot of him."
One of joys of his job is sparring with Jackson. "I love her. In fact, I told Sam Jackson, her husband, 'I just love your wife.' And he just looked at me. He wasn't spotting the humor, but I do love her. She's so proud and down-to-earth, and I think that comes through in the show. When I do a show, you don't see much because you can't see yourself, but there's something about her that makes that home feel like a home."
Hudson's right: A sense of humor is not Jackson's strong suit. (When did you last see a Samuel L. Jackson comedy?) When the paparazzi yelled at him for a picture, he replied with a "Do I hear a please?" And he was equally ungiving and parsimonious with the print press. When asked if all the commotion over his wife's performance made him want to do a play — Wilson or otherwise — he replied coolly, "Not particularly." Lest that be read as "There's more money in movies," he qualified: "I like theatre, though. If the right thing comes up and I have the time, I will do it."
He started acting here with the Negro Ensemble Company, but the closest he got to Broadway was understudying Charles S. Dutton and Rocky Carroll in Wilson's The Piano Lesson.
Even more terminally laid back than Jackson was director Spike Lee, resplendent and topical in his Yankees baseball cap. He enjoyed the evening: "August Wilson was our greatest poet. I saw it originally with Delroy Lindo. I know a lot of people in this cast, and I wanted to be here tonight."
Lee filmed for posterity the last two performance of Stew's Tony-winning stew, Passing Strange. "It will be shown at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 18 and go into theatrical release in July," he said.
Denzel Washington, who has done his share of Spike Lee movies, was promised on the evening's photo-tip sheet, but only his wife, Pauletta Pearson, showed. "He's working in New Mexico on a film," she said. He had hoped to make the premiere because Ellis plays his wife in his June release, "The Taking of Pelham One Two Three."
Ellis makes quite an erotic dent in the play as a brazen, and understandably brief, boarder. "I love that Molly challenges people and makes them question things that they take for granted. She does it sometimes in an elegant way and sometimes in an inelegant way. What I'm trying to accomplish with her is that she's lonely, she's sexy, she wants to make friends but doesn't know how to, she's sad — all these things are in this balloon, and when you pop it, all these things come out. It's so much fun to try to get that every night."
Blake, who loses the sexual tug-of-war with Ellis, felt nevertheless good about Mattie. "I hope that she doesn't come off as a total sap, and that, over the length of the play, the audience feels she's someone they want good things to happen to. I do think that Loomis is the light at the end of the tunnel in a way, that when he finds himself he will give her the opportunity to find herself. I like that she maintains hope, despite everything that has gone on in her life. She is, up to the end, hopeful. And she tries to find joy in life's little things."
A less-founded, more foolhardy hope is what Holland sees in the object of their affections: "The thing I like most is how much hope Jeremy has, how he just believes there's possibility for him in the world. He trusts that optimism and goes for it at all costs. I love that." And making out with two beautiful women isn't bad, either.
Filling the boots of Delroy Lindo is an unenviable assignment, but Coleman manfully measures up. "I love the struggle going with Loomis and how he emerges out of that. I so identified with finding yourself, finding your own voice, being comfortable in your own skin. No matter what tragedy we face, there's always hope. And to see this man emerge in spite of his circumstances is pretty amazing."
The puppy-love scene in the garden between 11-year-old Leigh and 12-year-old Cummings draws applause nightly, she said. "I love the scene for the writing," she remarked with emphasis. "The kissing part is okay. At first I hated it, but I've gotten used to it." Cummings, who turns 13 next week, was more direct: "It's weird."