August Wilson's "Fences" and "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" both made you think of jazz. His new play, "Joe Turner's Come and Gone," is set in 1911, when even the word would not have been permissible in polite black households. The music of the period was ragtime - not the hot "Maple Leaf Rag" but the elegant, thoughtful pieces Scott Joplin cautioned must always be played slowly.
The title comes from a blues song about a Tennessee governor's brother who lured black men into crap games, kidnapped them and forced them to work for him. It is an apt image for a play about dislocated lives, about a period where the economic and social odds against stability are enormous.
Wilson is clearly aware of the lingering consequences of that instability. He wants to write a play that captures the energy of black faith and mysticism. One of his characters is a kind of healer, another a deacon. One of its most exciting scenes is a kind of parlor revival meeting broken off by the tremblings of a man possessed.
In the Pittsburgh boarding house where the play takes place, parents and children are reunited, new bonds are formed, old wounds are healed. But you feel that in his eagerness to envision a place where reconciliations abound, Wilson has minimized the conflict the characters and period require. The rags may be too stately; a little syncopation might help.
Still, there are scenes of great power, particularly when Delroy Lindo, who plays a haunted man trying to exorcise demons, lets loose. Ed Hall has a beautiful quality as the healer, and there are performances of gentle strength by Kimberleigh Aarn and Angela Bassett. Bo Rucker and Kimberly Scott have splendid comic scenes - in fact, there are no weak links in the cast. Lloyd Richards' direction infuses the play with grace and power.
A man searching for wholeness, a man digging for the roots of his existence, a man reaching into his past to move into his future - this man, disturbed, battered, embittered, is the hero of August Wilson's play "Joe Turner's Come and Gone," which opened last night at the Ethel Barrymore Theater.
With it, Wilson moves another step into his grand dramatic design of providing a panoramic view of the American black experience since the days of Lincoln.
This is the third play in the series to reach Broadway, and, like its predecessors, "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" and the still-running Tony Award-winning "Fences," it stands completely on its own, while still opening another window on Wilson's overall theme, and revealing yet another aspect of his compelling theatrical genius.
"Joe Turner" is set in a Pittsburgh boarding house in 1911. The scene is peaceful, domestic. A sunny morning. A woman getting breakfast. A man, her husband and master of the house, just home from work.
Into this scene - which seems fugitively like a genre painting, an interior with figures - people, life, and themes gradually intrude. Black people, black life, black themes. This is an America that, in this time slot, few artists have explored. Few have even noticed.
Wilson starts his play with the leisureliness of a Eugene O'Neill slowly pinpointing this family - a boarding house in industrial America, filled with transients. These are Wilson's dispossessed - refugees both from the Africa they were wrested from, and the American South from which they have emigrated.
The mood, however, is funny, odd, eccentric...very cozy, very O'Neill himself in blackface, but this is certainly not an amused rendition of "Ah, Wilderness" played on the black notes of nostalgia's piano.
"Joe Turner" is a blues lament on a cold street - the memory of a loss. Yet also - for Wilson is an irrepressible, even if often depressed, optimist - the prescription for a future, a hope for a mending.
Into this respectable Pittsburgh boarding house there erupts a huge, straggling man, with staring eyes, a shabby coat, a big battered hat, holding onto a daughter as if his life depended on it. The name is Herald Loomis, and his pain is as formidable as his person.
He is looking for his wife, whom he has not seen in nine years. Where he comes from, what he is doing, why he is searching, these are questions that at first hang unanswered in the play like mist in the air.
Other people walk in and out of the play, in and out of the boarding house - there is a Sunday chicken dinner which ends in the joy of a singing-dancing-chanting "Juba," an impromptu celebration of the spirit.
Into this joy Loomis suddenly rushes in. He tells of visions, of a sea of skeletons. He has a kind of fit - epileptic perhaps, or some terrible seizure of the soul.
He is both encouraged and quieted down by Bynum Walker, the house's senior resident and an old man with wisdom and the gift of "mending." African society might have called him a conjur-man or a witch-doctor.
In Pennsylvania 1911, Bynum is simply an eccentric who has seen strange things, knows about herbs and blood, and may have occult power. Bynum believes that every man has a song to sing - the soulsong of his inner journey - and must find it, keep it, sing it.
And Loomis? What is the mystery of his search? Why must he find his wife?
And, for that matter, who was Joe Turner, whom Bynum sings the blues about?
That last much I'll tell you, and leave the rest to Wilson. Joe Turner - now still oddly memorialized in a famous blues by the pappy of New Orleans, W. C. Handy - was at the turn of the century the brother of a Tennessee governor.
His little trick was to lure blacks into an illegal crap game, arrest them, shove them into a chain gang, and sell them off as indentured workers for seven years. It was the last wicked flick of the slave traders' whip.
But Wilson's play is not about slavery. It is about the results of slavery; it is about separation. Separation from roots, separation from kith and kin, separation within one's own psychic self.
He is writing about blacks in 1911, but his apocalyptic vision is so clear - okay, it's a clear look at a muddy vessel - that what he has to say about the atavistic demands of everyone's tribal pasts (we are all tribes of the same monkey-god) and the need to mend ourselves into communal wholeness, must strike a universal note.
But the play is black. The idiom is the black theater, as is the language and the form. In many ways its verbal riffs and emotional cadenzas resemble jazz, so don't go expecting the Grieg-like music and manicured form of Ibsen.
That music and that form has, in fact, been beautifully caught - in all, its confusing mixture of fact and metaphor, naturalism and symbolism - by Lloyd Richards's staging, which starts with the painterly setting by Scott Bradley and the somber costumes of Pamela Peterson, and ends with play's fulfillment.
Richards - long Wilson's director and collaborator - understands the pulse of the play, the slow start, the emotional build, the final catharsis. The aftertaste. So important, this - the play after the play, the play that dissolves in your mind as you start to walk down the street.
The ensemble performances are very much subservient to the concept, and some, like moments of the play itself, are deliberately conventional. All are good, but two have the responsibility of shaping of the play, and these are magnificent.
Delroy Lindo as the shambling, dispossessed Loomis is tremendous, casting his bulky shadow over the whole play. Just as important is the subtle, diffident performance of Ed Hall as the medicine man, Bynum Walker.
Here is a lovely, moving play that carries you with it like a matchbox on a flood.
August Wilson continues to rewrite the history of the American theater by bringing the history of black America - and with it the history of white America - to the stage. In ''Joe Turner's Come and Gone,'' Mr. Wilson's third play to reach New York, that history unfolds with the same panoramic sweep that marked ''Ma Rainey's Black Bottom'' and ''Fences.'' As the new play's characters hang out in the kitchen and parlor of a black boardinghouse in the Pittsburgh of 1911, they retrace their long hard roads of migration from the sharecropping South to the industrialized North, and those tales again hum with the spellbinding verbal poetry of the blues. Whether a lost young woman is remembering how her mother died laboring in the peach orchards or a bitter man named Herald Loomis (Delroy Lindo) is recounting his seven years of illegal bondage to the Mississippi bounty hunter Joe Turner, Mr. Wilson gives haunting voice to the souls of the American dispossessed.
But to understand just why the play at the Barrymore may be Mr. Wilson's most profound and theatrically adventurous telling of his story to date, it is essential to grasp what the characters do not say - to decipher the history that is dramatized in images and actions beyond the reach of logical narrative. In ''Joe Turner,'' there are moments when otherwise voluble men reach a complete impasse with language, finding themselves struck dumb by traumatizing thoughts and memories that they simply ''ain't got the words to tell.'' And there are times when the play's events also leap wildly off the track of identifiable reality. Late in Act I, Herald Loomis becomes so possessed by a fantastic vision - of bones walking across an ocean - that he collapses to the ground in a cyclonic paroxysm of spiritual torment and, to the horror of his fellow boarders, scuttles epileptically across the floor on his back, unable to recover his footing and stand up.
These are occasions of true mystery and high drama, and they take Mr. Wilson's characters and writing to a dizzying place they haven't been before. That place is both literally and figuratively Africa. Though on its surface a familiar American tale about new arrivals in the big city searching for jobs, lost relatives, adventure and love, ''Joe Turner's Come and Gone'' is most of all about a search for identity into a dark and distant past. That search leads the black characters back across the ocean where so many of their ancestors died in passage to slavery - and it sends Mr. Wilson's own writing in search of its cultural roots. As the occupants of the Pittsburgh boardinghouse are partly assimilated into white America and partly in thrall to a collective African unconscious, so Mr. Wilson's play is a mixture of the well-made naturalistic boardinghouse drama and the mystical, non-Western theater of ritual and metaphor. In ''Joe Turner,'' the clash between the American and the African shakes white and black theatergoers as violently as it has shaken the history we've all shared.
To achieve his sophisticated end, Mr. Wilson has constructed an irresistible premise. ''Joe Turner'' begins when the bizarre Loomis, imposing and intense in Mr. Lindo's riveting performance, comes knocking fiercely at the boardinghouse door with his delicate 11-year-old daughter (Jamila Perry) incongruously in tow. With his years of servitude to Joe Turner at last behind him, Loomis is searching for the wife who deserted him at the start of his captivity a decade earlier. But Loomis is a ''wild-eyed, mean-looking'' man who looks as if he ''killed somebody gambling over a quarter''; he's so pitch-black in mood and dress that there must be more to his story. Bynum Walker (Ed Hall), an eccentric fellow boarder with a penchant for clairvoyance and other forms of old-country voodoo, becomes obsessed with the strange intruder, intent on linking Loomis somehow to the supernatural ''shining man'' who haunts his own search for the ''secret of life.''
Yet the metaphysical cat-and-mouse game played by Bynum and Loomis is only the spine of ''Joe Turner.'' Everyone in the boardinghouse is looking, each according to his own experience, for either a lost relative or a secret of life, or both. The proprietor (Mel Winkler), the son of a free man, seeks salvation by becoming a typical American entrepreneur; he has no sympathy for a new young tenant (Bo Rucker) who arrives in Pittsburgh with rustic cotton-picking manners and crazy dreams of escaping menial labor with his guitar music. The women of the house also range across a wide spectrum - from a worldly cynic (Kimberly Scott) to a naive romantic searching for a man (Kimberleigh Aarn) to the good-hearted proprietress (L. Scott Caldwell) who believes that laughter is the best way ''to know you're alive.''
By throwing such varied individuals together, Mr. Wilson creates a kaleidoscopic pattern of emotional relationships, including some tender, funny and sexy courtships sparked by the endearingly boisterous Mr. Rucker. But each character also has a distinct relationship to the black past, just as each has a different perspective on the white urban present. It's only when all the boardinghouse residents spontaneously break into an African ''juba,'' singing and dancing at a Sunday fried-chicken dinner, that the extended family of ''Joe Turner'' finds a degree of unity and peace. As Bynum says to anyone who will listen, each man must find his own song if he is to be free. Loomis, the sole character who fails to join in the juba, must find his song if he is to reconnect to life and overthrow the psychic burden of his years of slavery. Only then will Joe Turner - the play's symbol of white oppression as well as the subject of the W. C. Handy blues song that gave it its title - be truly gone.
As usual with Mr. Wilson, the play overstates its thematic exposition in an overlong first act. There are some other infelicities, too, most notably the thin characterization of a pair of children. While one wishes that the director, Lloyd Richards, had addressed these flaws with more tough-mindedness during the two years of refinement that followed the play's premiere at the Yale Repertory Theater, the production is in every other way a tribute to its extended development process in resident theaters around the country. The first-rate cast, which also includes Raynor Scheine as a benign white river rat and Angela Bassett as a fervent convert to the white god that failed her ancestors, forms a supple, harmonic ensemble. Mr. Richards's staging is equally conversant with scenes of romantic flirtation, rending tableaux of divided families and galvanic climaxes in which the past erupts in a frenzy of exorcism.
The oblique, symbiotic relationship between Mr. Hall's otherworldly Bynum and Mr. Lindo's Loomis is particularly impressive. The two men's subliminal, often unspoken connection emerges like a magnetic force whenever they are onstage together. Loomis, we're told, was in happier days the deacon of the ''Abundant Light'' church. Under Mr. Hall's subtle psychological prodding and healing, Mr. Lindo gradually metamorphoses from a man whose opaque, defeated blackness signals the extinction of that light into a truly luminous ''shining man,'' bathing the entire theater in the abundant ecstasy of his liberation. The sight is indescribably moving. An American writer in the deepest sense, August Wilson has once again shown us how in another man's freedom we find our own.