Joe Turner’s Come and Gone
Presented by Circle Players
Through Feb. 13 at TPAC’s Johnson Theater
For info, call 255-ARTS
August Wilson is a major contemporary American playwright. From the mid-1980s to the early 1990s, he authored five playsMa Rainey’s Black Bottom, Fences, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, The Piano Lesson, and Two Trains Runningeach of which was accorded the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award. Fences also took the Tony Award and a Pulitzer Prize, while The Piano Lesson garnered a Pulitzer.
Rarely has such acclaim been heaped on so many plays by one writer in such a short span of time. Wilson’s works function as an unofficial history of the 20th-century African American experience, offering portraits of blacks who have migrated north to urban centers such as Chicago or Pittsburgh in search of better work opportunities, some semblance of social stability, and freedom from bigotry. Yet inevitably, Wilson’s characters find that they must always deal, one way or the other, with their tragic legacy as pawns in the white man’s game.
The struggle for black identity is a constant in Wilson’s work, whether his characters are jazz musicians, garbage haulers, day laborers, or shirt pressers. Wilson’s sure-handed grasp of the rhythms of everyday speech and his innate gifts as a poet are a potent mix, out of which emerge sympathetic characters in poignant situationswhich are made all the more so in light of the fundamental socioeconomic struggle at hand.
In the early 1990s, Circle Players presented both Fences and The Piano Lesson. The fourth offering of this, their 50th anniversary season, is Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, which opened last weekend. Given Wilson’s stature, and the fact that this company has had some experience producing his plays, one might expect a rousing, or at the very least a somewhat inspiring, evening of theater. The results are decidedly mixed, however, and the reasons are many.
The year is 1911. The city is Pittsburgh. The place is a boardinghouse run by Seth and Bertha Holly. Seth generally holds court at the kitchen table, regaling his boarders with his harmlessly sardonic suspicions about every aspect of life. Good-natured Bertha chides him often in between cooking meals for the boarders, who, at curtain’s rise, include Jeremy Furlow, a construction worker who wants to play his guitar for a living, and Bynum Walker, a spiritual-minded storyteller who, though thoroughly amiable, is constantly rubbing Seth the wrong way.
Morning breakfast is interrupted by a knock at the door. In walks Herald Loomis, a tall, brooding strangerwith his 11-year-old daughter in towwhose desire to rent a room will change things at the Hollys’ boardinghouse for the next week or so. Seth is wary of the man, but Loomis offers him cash money in advance, so the room is his.
Haltingly, painfully, Loomis eventually tells his tale. He is a former church deacon only recently released from a forced labor camp. He has come to Pittsburgh in search of his wife, whom he hasn’t seen in 10 years, with the goal of reestablishing his family and beginning a new life. (A bit of explanation is in order here: The Joe Turner of the title, the brother of a former Tennessee governor, was notorious for waylaying black men along the roadside and carting them off to chain gangs.)
After the folks at the breakfast table offer some suggestions on how Loomis might go about locating his wife, it is decided that white businessman Rutherford Seliga regular visitor in the Hollys’ kitchenmight be able to find Loomis’ long-lost Martha. Loomis pays the man a dollar, and the search is on.
The bulk of the play involves short scenes among all the principals wherein their exchanges reveal bits of themselves: their longings, their views of their place in the white man’s world, the practicalities of just getting along. The Hollys’ kitchen table serves as the forum for debate and disclosure, though the majority of stage time is shared by Seth and Bynum, who represent polar opposites of black potentiality: Seth, ever the pragmatist, sees only the value of making ends meet and getting safely through the day; Bynum, ever the spiritualist, sees a broader humanas well as blackexperience, where faith and magic can serve as guideposts to a richer internal life.
But the main player here is Loomis. His search for his wife is the play’s central action, and his dark presence in the boardinghouse is symbolic of his race’s alienation and disenfranchisement. Certainly, there is a fertile dramatic field to be plowed here. Alas, the laissez-faire approach of director Stella Reed ultimately hamstrings the proceedings. Actors wander in and out, almost aimlessly at times, then plop themselves down, recite their speeches, and aimlessly wander out. Furthermore, the play aches to find a happy medium between presentational and representational styles of acting. There is room for both, especially in the handling of Loomis and Bynum, who often aren’t merely talking to other characters but are in fact addressing the world. This critical failure not only results in static drama but also eviscerates Wilson’s messages.
As far as the acting goes, there are some bright spots, though actors step on each others’ lines far too often, and some of the performances lack crispness. Joseph Grant is quite good as the silver-tongued Bynum; he’s wry and spirited throughout, and he croons a mean blues too. Vanessa Smith as Bertha is poised and polished; unfortunately, director Reed practically chains her to the stove. Rafael D. Wilson displays some welcome energy as Jeremy. The two children in the cast, Erica Tharpe and William Kirkpatrick, deserve mention as well, both for their pluck and for their charm.
Elbert Blackmon as Seth apparently stepped into his role as a replacement somewhat later in the rehearsal period. He gives it the old college try but is often unsure of where his character is goingsometimes literally, it seems. Finally, Robert A. Pritchard bears the heavy burden of Loomis and falls, almost immediately, under its weight, giving a performance with all the sensitivity and subtlety of the Addams Family butler Lurch.
Possibly the most amazing thing about this evening of theater is the fact that, despite the production’s problems, much of what August Wilson is trying to say still came through. But one doubts very much if he’d like to see Circle Players’ treatment of his award-winning play. One also wonders what Wilson would make of the Nashville audience guffawing nervouslyor was it earnestly?at moments in the play that are quite obviously designed to elicit a sympathy for characters in psychic distress. But as Bynum Walker so aptly notes, ”Sometimes you can get all mixed up in life...come out the wrong place.“
Ongoing interest in August Wilson should spur Nashville theatergoers to investigate another local production of his work. Tennessee State University’s American Negro Playwright Theatre will present Wilson’s Seven Guitars, Jan. 31-Feb. 9 in the Thomas E. Poag Auditorium on the school’s main campus. Under the direction of Barry Scott, the 1996 drama explores the hopes and dreams of a musician named Floyd, as well as his relationship with Vera, the love of his life. The production serves as part of the university’s celebration of Black History Month.
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