Great works of art often tote heavy baggage. Yet the revival of August Wilson’s “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” a drama of indisputable greatness, feels positively airborne. Much of Bartlett Sher’s splendid production, which opened Thursday night at the Belasco Theater, moves with the engaging ease of lively, casual conversation.
Some part of you, though, is always aware that there’s a storm whipping within and around the breezy talk, a gale-force wind that picks up and scatters people as if they were dandelion seeds. That wind is cold, uncaring history, propelling an entire population of men and women, only 50 years out of slavery, as they try to find footholds on a land that keeps shaking them loose.
Set in 1911 and the second chapter (chronologically) in Mr. Wilson’s 10-play cycle of the African-American journey through the 20th century, “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” is about nothing less than the migration and dispersal of a race and culture, searching for an identity and home. At the same time this play, which takes place in a boardinghouse in the Pittsburgh neighborhood called the Hill, feels cozy, gossipy and domestic.
Its characters, embodied by one of the strongest ensembles in town, seem reassuringly knowable instead of fancy figures in an allegory. This is true even when they’re describing mystical visions involving bones walking out of the ocean.
An old man named Bynum Walker (Roger Robinson, in a marvelously centered performance) speaks of finding himself in a dreamland where the everyday is so magnified that sparrows are as big as eagles and then seeing, but with new eyes, the world restored to its normal proportions. That’s the scale of “Joe Turner” too. It is magically larger than life and exactly, precisely life size. So is Mr. Sher’s interpretation, which seems to take place in both a well-scrubbed, modest sitting room and a fairy-tale forest.
Though it was Mr. Wilson’s favorite among his plays — and that of many critics (including me) — “Joe Turner” was not a raging popular success in its first New York incarnation. Lacking the more obvious melodrama and sentimentality of his two Pulitzer Prize winners, “Fences” (1987) and “The Piano Lesson” (1990), it opened on Broadway in 1988, squarely between those two longer-running works, and lasted for 105 performances.
It would be a shame if this production doesn’t find a wide and enthusiastic audience. It’s an (almost) unconditional pleasure to watch. (I had problems with some overly mobile scenery, but more on that later.) Unlike many of the later Wilson plays and other high-reaching American dramas of social magnitude, “Joe Turner” seamlessly blends the ordinary with the extraordinary.
Much more than, say, O’Neill’s “Iceman Cometh,” which similarly presents an array of American dream seekers in a closed setting, “Joe Turner” keeps its symbols up its sleeves instead of wearing them like cufflinks. This play disarms its audiences with folksy chitchat and homespun comedy before it dawns on them that what they’re watching — in its subliminal sweep and symmetry — is close to epic poetry.
Set in a house where residents rarely stay for more than a week or two, the play is suffused with a sense of transience — of people coming, going and briefly brushing against one another before heading in different directions. Only the house’s owner, Seth Holly (Ernie Hudson), and his wife, Bertha (LaTanya Richardson Jackson), seem at all settled. Their boarders arrive as if at a way station, bearing stories filled with far-flung place names (everyone seems to have been in at least three distant states) and descriptions of short-lived love affairs and shorter-lived jobs.
“I woke up that morning and the only thing I could do was look around for my shoes,” says Jeremy Furlow (Andre Holland), a young man working on a road crew, recalling the day he discovered his woman had left him. The gorgeous, insolent Molly Cunningham (Aunjanue Ellis) arrives at Seth’s, announcing, “I ain’t looking for no home or nothing.” But you suspect she shares the sentiments of the other young female boarder, the more demure Mattie Campbell (Marsha Stephanie Blake), who says, “All my life I been looking for somebody to stop and stay with me.”
In this universe of nomads, a man like Rutherford Selig (Arliss Howard) assumes an urgent importance. A white peddler who commissions Seth to make pots and pans from sheet metal, Selig is also a people finder, and he comes from a long line of men who pursued that profession. His great-grandfather transported African slaves across the ocean, and his father rounded up runaway slaves for plantation owners. Now, decades after the Emancipation Proclamation, Selig is in the business of finding black people for black people.
Among his clients is Herald Loomis (the magnetic Chad L. Coleman), who shows up at Seth’s with his young daughter, Zonia (Amari Rose Leigh), and the ominous look of a man on the verge of implosion. Loomis is looking for the wife he lost 10 years ago. The story of that loss, which emerges slowly since Loomis is a man of few and reluctant words, is what gives the play its title.
Loomis’s history has mournful, angry echoes of the theft of human identity that was institutionalized slavery. No wonder his baleful presence scares people. Only Bynum, the most completely realized of the shaman figures who recur in Mr. Wilson’s work, understands that Loomis’s story is that of all of the residents. They are people, as he puts it, in search of their own songs.
There is little actual singing in “Joe Turner,” but it is the most deeply musical of Mr. Wilson’s plays, an ode to the unheard melodies that set the rhythms of lives. Mr. Sher, best known for the smash hit “South Pacific” (like this one, a Lincoln Center Theater production), refrains from excessive instrumental embellishment. (Taj Mahal’s evocative guitar riffs between scenes are suitably subtle.) The real music is in the way people talk, and when the boarders come together for a thrillingly staged Juba session — a call-and-response dance — you see their stylized movements as an extension and exaltation of how each one speaks.
The look of the show — designed by Michael Yeargan (set), Catherine Zuber (costumes) and Brian MacDevitt (lighting) — conjures the appropriate combination of the particular and the universal. Seth’s house is rendered without walls, an island floating in mottled skies strobed by lightning.
One caveat, though: As in Mr. Sher’s 2006 revival of “Awake and Sing!,” this production’s scenery sometimes disappears in mid-scene. Symbolically, this makes sense. But especially in the play’s powerful conclusion it’s an effect that competes with and distracts from the performers. (Ditto for the shower of gold in the finale.)
That should never be allowed to happen. For the essence of this production is in its organic acting, which matches Mr. Wilson’s writing in its melding of the quotidian and the cosmic. The cast members — who also include Michael Cummings and Danai Gurira, in a compellingly austere performance — all exist with grace and ease between the limited world of their characters’ day-to-day lives and the infinite worlds within them.
It is a measure of this show’s success that when Bynum speaks of seeing a “shiny man” who describes himself as “the One Who Goes Before and Shows the Way,” you accept it as matter-of-factly as Seth’s talking about the economics of making dustpans. And, yes, in both soliloquies you hear Mr. Wilson’s America lifting its voice in song. As Bynum says, “Music don’t know no certain night.” In “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” every molecule of life hums with it.
No playwright understood better than August Wilson that freedom is, at least in part, a state of mind. And none of Wilson's plays addressed the particular challenges faced by black Americans seeking it more directly or movingly than Joe Turner's Come and Gone, now being revived by Lincoln Center Theater.
The second work, chronologically, in Wilson's Century Cycle is set in 1911, when slavery's wounds were still raw, and not just for those old enough to recall life before emancipation. The central figure, Herald Loomis, spends seven years in forced labor after being falsely arrested by Turner, who serves as a symbol of racist oppression.
When Loomis first appears, he has technically been a free man for four years, but his soul is still tethered and tattered. In the new production (***½ out of four), which opened Thursday at the Belasco Theatre, director Bartlett Sher and a robustly talented cast make Loomis' predicament and the struggles of other black men and women painfully accessible.
Sher's last Broadway outing, Lincoln Center's stunning 2008 production of South Pacific, also tackled racism, both in its libretto and its songs. Wilson's dialogue has its own majestic music, and the actors here are intuitive players. Chad L. Coleman's Loomis speaks in a gruff but strained voice that reinforces the contradiction between his formidable physical presence and his broken spirit.
Loomis' quest for the wife he was torn from takes him and his daughter to a Pittsburgh boardinghouse. There he meets Bynum Walker, an aging conjurer whose singing is thought to have mystical powers. The old man, played to gritty perfection by Roger Robinson, recognizes the new boarder as one of Turner's victims — Bynum uses a harsher, racially charged word — " 'cause you forgot how to sing your song."
The often tense relationship between African spirituality and Christianity, a key factor in Wilson's work, feeds the interaction between these characters. It also informs the play's final scene, where Loomis confronts the limits of faith in a corrupt world.
Ernie Hudson turns in a brisk, sympathetic performance as the hardworking boardinghouse owner who is wary of Loomis. LaTanya Richardson, Andre Holland and Aunjanue Ellis add frisky humor as his equally industrious but more easygoing wife and two of their boarders.
Marsha Stephanie Blake brings a gentle dignity to the fragile resident who catches Loomis' eye, and Danai Gurira is a powerful presence toward the end, as a woman who urges the tortured protagonist to "look to Jesus."
Loomis rejects her advice, but manages, as so many of Wilson's characters do, to find strength and the possibility of love under the most bitter circumstances. If that's not spiritual transcendence, I don't know what is.
When the cast explodes into a rowdy Juba in "Joe Turner's Come and Gone," their joyous, spirit-summoning dance suggests roots stretching back to African tribal movement and forward through tap and jazz right up to hip-hop. That same panoramic breadth is reflected in the characters themselves, their histories bound to the still-raw wounds of slavery while their hopes and destinies reach far into a future mapped out in ongoing struggle. August Wilson's gift for storytelling has rarely been more beguiling than in this lyrical 1986 drama, and in his searing revival, director Bartlett Sher makes every note strong and true.
In shows like "South Pacific," "The Light in the Piazza," "Awake and Sing!" and "The Barber of Seville" at the Met, Sher and regular set-design collaborator Michael Yeargan have developed a signature visual style that weds naturalistic presentation to stylization and spatial poetry. That dual approach heightens the already lush textures of Wilson's writing, in its traumatized depths, its mystical detours and its celebratory spiritual heights.
Yeargan creates kinetic art out of the assembly of a set, and then strips its elements away again to tighten our focus on the drama. That pattern works magnificently here. The play opens on an empty stage backed by a brooding sky and percussive thunderclaps as figures cross on their difficult journeys. Then, piece by piece, a window, a door, a hanging light fixture, a table, a staircase and a kitchen corner are flown in, transporting us to 1911 and to the Pittsburgh boardinghouse run by Seth Holly (Ernie Hudson) and his wife Bertha (LaTanya Richardson Jackson). It's an arresting start that invites us into this homey world and makes us want to know these people.
The third play Wilson completed in his 10-part, decade-by-decade Century Cycle about the African-American experience, "Joe Turner" comes second in the series' chronology, following "Gem of the Ocean" as it examines a people still settling into freedom, seeking to reclaim their identity.
There's relatively little traditional plot -- a troubled stranger arrives looking for the wife he believes abandoned him during his seven years of illegal servitude. But with its rivers of talk, discursive stories, wild flights of imagination and bone-chilling visions, this is a vibrant canvas in which every character makes a distinctive contribution to Wilson's throbbing mosaic of life.
The key figures are Herald Loomis (Chad L. Coleman), the intense former deacon who's been dragging his spindly daughter Zonia (Amari Rose Leigh) behind him for four years since his release as he searches for her mother; and hoodoo-practicing Bynum Walker (Roger Robinson), whose name comes from his talent for binding folks. "Just like glue I sticks people together," says the old man, who is consumed by his own search for the secret of life.
The rest of the house's residents may be less conscious of their search but they are no less driven by the need to reconnect with the world. Or, as Bynum tellingly describes it in the first of the play's hypnotic monologues, they are looking to find their song.
Seth and Bertha are the most grounded of them. Born in the north of free parents, Seth makes pots and pans for white peddler Selig (Arliss Howard) but dreams of starting his own business. He has little patience for the former cotton-pickers flocking north, expecting a miraculous new life without sacrifice. Among them is girl-crazy Jeremy (Andre Holland), who pours out honeyed promises to coax naive Mattie (Marsha Stephanie Blake) out of her heartsickness. But Jeremy just as swiftly turns his attention elsewhere with the arrival of free-spirited beauty Molly (Aunjanue Ellis).
Like the seductive Jeremy but with far more substance to back up his allure, Wilson rolls these characters' individual and intertwined tales into a bold, bluesy symphony, as rich in humor as it is in sadness. And Sher negotiates its many sinuous twists and radical tonal shifts with the fluidity of a master conductor.
Perhaps the most thrilling such movement is the switch from the exhilarating Juba near the close of act one to the terrifying trance of Herald's journey back into the unspeakable pain of his own and his ancestors' past. With Bynum's shamanistic guidance, he conjures a vision of bones walking on water, directly connecting the scene to Aunt Ester's invocation of the Atlantic graveyard of African slaves in "Gem of the Ocean."
But the play's ruminative pauses are every bit as gripping as its operatic crescendos: Selig tracing the evolution of his family's role as "bringers and finders" of black people, or weighing his relationship with his horse against that with any woman; Bynum exhorting Jeremy to look at all of what a woman is and not just a part, opening the young man's eyes to what a woman can make out of a man; Molly proudly outlining her lack of use for emotional attachment; taciturn Herald finally opening up about his capture; stoical Bertha doling out pragmatic consolation to Mattie.
The musicality and complex humanity of these and other passages give the play an almost overwhelming cumulative emotional power, with even some of its most easygoing banter underscored by roiling melancholy.
Singling out any member of the cast would be a disservice to the impeccable ensemble overall, their performances flawlessly tuned to the shape-shifting rhythms of Wilson's dialogue. Likewise, the craft contributions are woven together into a seamless theatrical experience, from Catherine Zuber's characterful costumes to Brian MacDevitt's exquisite lighting to the rootsy guitar-picking of Taj Mahal's score.
Once again proving himself a director of rare sensitivity, Sher has honored this extraordinary play with a production of piercing depth and shimmering beauty. Its voices continue to haunt the heart and mind long after Herald's agonizing howl of hard-fought freedom, a resurrection in which Bynum, too, finds illumination.