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A CurtainUp Review
Joe Turner's Come And Gone
Curtainup's New August Wilson Backgrounder by Elyse Sommer
I had the Binding Song. I choose that song because that's what I seen most when I was traveling. . . people walking away and leaving one another. So I takes the power of my song and binds them together. — Bynum
Joe Turner's Come and gone
Roger Robinson and Marsha Stephanie Blake
Bertha Holly (Latanya Richardson Jackson) says she isn't superstitious even as she only half-mockingly tosses salt across the floor of the Pittsburgh boarding house for blacks where she and her proprietor husband Seth (Ernie Hudson) try to maintain a respectable dignity. In August Wilson's stirring and riveting Joe Turner's Come And Gone, salt is the least of the superstitiously imposed elements that crop up. With a strong metaphysical impulse and an even stronger literary one, Wilson turned his attention in this play to the plight of the progeny of former slaves whose lives and psyches have been irreparably maimed by years of inhumane servitude and separation from family. This play set in 1911 Pittsburgh is the second installment in his cycle of 10 plays about the African-American experience during each of the decades of the 20th century.

As Wilson began so memorably with Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (1984) and continuing through Radio Golf (2007), he cast dramatic spells about many of his unforgettable characters. But he cast no spell more profound and emotionally binding than the one that enables Bynum (Roger Robinson) in Joe Turner's Come And Gone. An herbalist/healer/"rootworker" and boarder ("Just like glue, I sticks people together") Bynum helps the needy with his supernatural powers. Opening on Broadway in 1988, this play has a lot to do with magic and believing but is primarily about the search for self-identity and the destiny of a people who must find their roots in order to secure their present.

Inheriting the boarding house from his father, the Northern-born Seth earns his living, aside from the boarders, with a night job and making tin pots and pans. More importantly, his boarding house serves as a relative haven for the displaced and insecure.

The arrival of Herald Loomis (Chad L. Coleman), a fearsome unfriendly man dressed all in black, gives everyone the shudders. He is accompanied by his young daughter Zonia (Amari Rose Leigh) who is taken under the kindly Bertha's wing to help with the chores. Revealed as a former church deacon who has been searching for his wife for eleven years, Loomis, though given to mystical hallucinations, was the victim of Memphis-based Joe Turner, a loathsome man who falsely imprisoned blacks for years of hard labor.

Not exactly the enchanted cottage, the boarding house nevertheless acts as a neutral, healing ground for the transient souls who sojourn there. It isn't a stretch to think of O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh as you see the characters unburden themselves. They include Jeremy (Andre Holland), a would-be ladies' man with a guitar; Mattie (Marsh Stephanie Blake), a sweet woman who takes up with Jeremy after her husband just went down the road one day; Molly (Aunjanue Ellis), a cynical, sensual, good-time girl with her eye on Jeremy; and Bynum, the spiritual grounder for Loomis' apocalyptical fits and visions.

Bertha's philosophy – "That's all anybody needs, love in one hand and laughter in the other" – balances the sense of loss that permeates the play. Perhaps because of its strongly metaphysical aura, similar in tone to his later play Gem of the Ocean (that conjures up spirits of the dead) Joe Turner's Come And Gone has not proven as popular or as accessible in theme as either Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, or Fences. The current political and social climate may change that. Wilson has declared Joe Turner Has Come And Gone to be his favorite. If one play can be singled out from the other nine brilliant and ambitious plays to be his masterpiece, this may be it. Certainly this wonderful Lincoln Center Theatre production will help place it among the must see plays of this season.

A splendid ensemble, under the direction of Bartlett Sher, graces this stunning Broadway revival of the play that first appeared on Broadway 21 years ago. Having brought renewed luster to two Lincoln Center-produced revivals (the current) South Pacific and Awake and Sing, Sher once again proves a master at keeping the integrity of the original. But it is the way he has anchored Wilson's earthy text to a spatially fluid reality that is simply stunning. Designer Michael Yeargan's spare, effective boarding-house setting is enhanced dramatically by the haunting, otherworldly atmospherics created by lighting designer Brian MacDevitt. Worthy of mention is the otherwise realistic vegetable, flower and herb garden that appears to be flourishing at the edge of the stage.

Coleman, who is making his Broadway debut, has a long time to wait before he lets all hell break loose. But he is an imposing presence from the start as the deeply troubled and volatile Herald Loomis. Robinson is no stranger to Wilson's dramatic literature earning a Tony nomination for his role in Seven Guitars. What more praise can I offer Robinson than to say that he is a spell-binder as Bynum?

Danai Gurira is excellent in a role that I cannot reveal without disclosing too much. The young Ms. Leigh (Zonia), and Michael Cummings, as Reuben the boy who lives next door, are two adorable and talented children making their Broadway debuts. Another among the many fine Broadway debuts is made by Andre Holland as the white peddler who moonlights as a people-finder. A mix of the mystical and real, allegorical and earthy, the fact that Joe Turner's Come And Gone (as Sher states in a program note) "has resurfaced at this particular moment is great. " Indeed, it is.

According to an article, "The Blues as Folk-Songs" by Dorothy Scarborough, "Joe Turner, the inspiration of the song, was a brother of Pete Turner, once governor of Tennessee. He was an officer and he used to come to Memphis and get prisoners to carry them to Nashville after a kangaroo court. When the Negroes said of any one, 'Joe Turner's been to town', they meant that the person in question had been carried off hand-cuffed to be gone no telling how long."

Joe Turner's Come And Gone
  By August Wilson
  Directed by Bartlett Sher

  Ernie Hudson (Seth Holly) Latanya Richardson Jackson (Bertha Holly), Roger Robinson (Bynum Walker), Arliss Howard (Rutherford Selig), Andre Holland (Jeremy Furlow), Chad L. Coleman (Herald Loomis), Amari Rose Leigh (Zonia Loomis), Marsha Stephanie Blake (Mattie Campbell), Michael Cummings (Reuben Scott), Aunjanue Ellis (Molly Cunningham), Danai Gurira (Martha Pentecost).
  Setting: Michael Yeargan
  Costumes: Catherine Zuber
  Lighting: Brian MacDevitt
  Sound: Scott Lehrer and Leon Rothenberg
  Music: Taj Mahal
  Running Time: 2 hours 45 minutes including intermission
  Lincoln Center Theatre at the Belasco Theatre, 111 West 44th Street 212/239-6200
Performances: Tuesday through Saturday evenings at 8 PM, matinees
  Wednesdays and Saturdays at 2 PM and Sundays at 3 PM.
  Tickets ($51.50 - $96.50)
   From 3/19/09 ; opening 4/16/09; closing 6/14/09.
  Review by Simon Saltzman based on 4/12/09 performance
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