Monday, April 27, 2009

Joe Turner's Come and Gone

Theatre Review: "Joe Turner's Come and Gone"
August Wilson Play
Directed by Bartlett Sher
Lincoln Center Theater at the Belasco theatre

by Eric Green

August Wilson's great play, "Joe Turner's Come and Gone" takes place in Pittsburgh, Pa in 1911 and it's about the legacy of slavery. It is the second of his Pittsburgh Cycle. The ensemble cast is amazingly directed by Bartlett Sher.

August Wilson died in 2005, at 60 years old, but his legacy as a great playwright in the United States has been well established. His liner notes for this plays says it all:

"It is August in Pittsburgh 1911. The sun falls out of heaven like a stone. The fires of the steel mill rage with a combined sense of industry and progress. Barges loaded with coal and iron ore trudge up the river to the mill towns that dot the Monongahela and return with fresh, hard, gleaming steel. The city flexes is muscles. Men throw countless bridges across the rivers, lay roads and carve tunnels through the hills sprouting with houses. From the deep and the near South the sons and daughters of newly freed African slaves wander into the city. Isolated, cut off from memory, having forgotten the names of the gods and only guessing at their faces they arrive dazed and stunned, their hearts kicking in their chests with a song worth singing. They arrive carrying Bibles and guitars, their pockets lined with dust and fresh hope, marked men and women seeking to scrape from the narrow, crooked cobbles and fiery blasts of coke furnaces a way of bludgeoning and shaping the malleable parts of themselves into a new identity as free men of definite and sincere worth.

"Foreigner in a strange land they carry as part and parcel of their baggage a long line of separation and dispersement which informs their sensibilities and marks their conduct as they search for ways to reconnect, to reassemble, to give clear and luminous meaning to the song which is both a wail and a whelp of joy."

The play was originally produced in Connecticut in 1984 and then on Broadway in 1988. In that production Delroy Lindo and Angela Bassett stared.

The sets and lighting for the production are exceptional. Michael Yeargan and Brian MacDevitt and responsible. Music comes from the wonderful Taj Mahal.

Bartlett Sher directs the play. He is a very able theatrical director. But, his selection by Wilson's heirs, who controls these production decisions, caused a stir by selecting him. Wilson had remained adamant that he wanted his productions director by Black directors. He had said that once a white director was selected to do one, no Black director would be selected again. Well, we will see. Sher is white. The direction of the play was flawless.

Ernie Hudson and Latanya Richardson Jackson played the lead roles of boarding house owners, Seth and Bertha Holly. Andre Holland played the young worker who quit his job instead of may a $5.00 weekly fee due to his being Black. Chad L. Coleman played the key role of Loomis. He is the one who faced "Joe Turner" in Memphis, Tennessee. And, Roger Robinson played Bynam Walker a major figure in the Holly boarding house.

Rutherford Sely played Arless Howard, "The finder." Howard was a kind of detective who helped find lost people.

He took credit for tracking down slaves who fled their owners in previous times. Now, he found lost people, Black or white, who simply disappeared.

Wilson's Joe Turners Come and Gone is written not too far after the end of government-endorsed slavery. This play takes you back to that time in a very realistic and dramatic

Don't miss this play.

One final note. The backdrop of steel mills and Wilson's own introduction calls attention to the fiery blasts of coke furnaces. It is these coke ovens where most Black workers were hired. The practice continued for decades through the 1970s and '80s. Coke ovens are the most dangerous part of the steel plant. Cancer and respiratory illnesses are prevalent.