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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
Joe Turner's Come and Gone
Joe Turner's Come and Gone, the third in August Wilson's 10-play chronicle of the 20th century African-American experience, may be the most audience-friendly of the cycle in terms of the range of characters and interpersonal relationships that drive the story. The year is 1911. Herald Loomis (Bernard K. Addison) and his little daughter Zonia (Crystal Williams, Da Shawn Barnes) come to a boarding house in Pittsburgh owned by Seth Holley (Gregg Daniel) and his wife Bertha (Lorey Hayes).
Herald has spent seven years in virtual slavery to a vicious planter named Joe Turner and is seeking his wife Martha, who disappeared four years ago from their home in Tennessee. He is a menacing half-mad presence and the other boarders deal with him in various ways.
Bertha, an exuberant mothering woman, takes on Zonia as a helper. Her husband Seth, perennially suspicious and self-righteous, wants to throw Herald out after one particularly terrifying fit of rage. Young Jeremy (Andre Jackson), a womanizing teen-ager, and Molly Cunningham (Cortney Wright), his female equivalent, are too self-absorbed to empathize with anyone. Mattie Campbell (Nambi E. Kelley), a young girl mourning the lover who walked out on her calling her cursed because their babies died, studies Herald appraisingly, especially after Jeremy has flitted on to Molly. But it's Bynum (Adolphus Ward), the ju-ju man, who calms Herald's rages and fits and urges him to find his "song"" which resonates as soul, goal, joy. Meanwhile, Zonia plays a complex string game with little Reuben (DeMont Washington, Jordan Carroll), her first friend.
Seth grouses sarcastically about what he calls "country niggers" who come up north with their guitars and Bibles looking for lost loved ones or a better life. Rutherford Selig (Michael Edwin), a white man, comes bustling in. He used to find runaway slaves; now he finds Negroes for Negroes. Herald hires him to find Martha, not for her place as the wife he hasn't seen in years, but because he perceives her as his "starting place in the world."
Although the range of characters, from the children Reuben and Zonia to old Bynum, give the play its texture and the flirtations between the young characters leaven it, it's the pain at the heart of Herald's treatment by the white man Joe Turner that colors the stage in lurid volcanic eruptions. Joe Turner, the man and the song, represent white oppression and cruelty. Herald's vision of bones at the bottom of the sea prefigures Gem of the Ocean"which makes the horrors of the slave boats the haunting subterranean core of the African-American psyche.
The production is given vitality and pace by director Ben Bradley who has assembled an outstanding cast. Addison is terrifying as Herald Loomis; his pain envelops him like a cloud, shooting bolts of anger like lightning. Ward never makes the mistake of competing with him; his Bynum is a very real old man whose own song shows its magic when his powers are called for by other characters' needs. Young Crystal Williams, who played Zonia at the performance viewed, found the unaffected soul of her character. Daniel played Seth with prickly irascibility and Hayes was a warm wholesome presence as his wife Bertha. Edwin brings Rutherford Selig to life as a bustling shabby entrepreneur. Kelley is a delicate lost soul as Mattie, whose ability to laugh and reach out for love is not quenched. Jackson brings exuberance to Jeremy and Wright's pouty beauty is perfect for Molly.
Travis Gale Lewis has created a warm cozy boarding house set with paintings in the window panes depicting the street outside. Lila Waters has found period props, including a pump for the kitchen sink.
August Wilson told me that he felt Joe Turner would make a particularly good movie. From your mouth to Hollywood's ear, August!