Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - April 16, 2009
Joe Turner's Come and Gone by August Wilson. Directed by Bartlett Sher Sets by Michael Yeargan. Costumes by Catherine Zuber. Lighting by Brian MacDevitt. Sound by Scott Lehrer and Leon Rothenberg. Music by Taj Mahal. Cast (in alphabetical order): Marsha Stephanie Blake, Chad L. Coleman, Michael Cummings, Aunjanue Ellis, Danai Gurira, Andre Holland, Arliss Howard, Ernie Hudson, LaTanya Richardson Jackson, Amari Rose Leigh, Roger Robinson.
It's almost impossible to tell from Sher's unnecessarily overstuffed mounting that this second play (chronologically speaking) in Wilson's decade-by-decade examination of the 20th-century African American experience is among the rawest and most powerful. As he did with his 2006 LCT revival of Clifford Odets's Awake and Sing!, Sher relies too much on his own pet tricks to present a story that's more than capable of telling itself. And, as with that production, he doesn't so much illuminate long-camouflaged truths as he does obscure points that have always been crystal clear.
Wilson's plays reject this approach because they already contain all the symbolism and invention they require. At the end of the first act of Joe Turner's Come and Gone, Herald Loomis (Chad L. Coleman), a man who's only recently been released from the control of the white bounty hunter Joe Turner, is crippled by visions of walking skeletons insisting that the deadly slave trade be remembered in every gruesome detail. The imagery, and the power it holds over the monumentally misguided Herald, wrenches you into the thick of centuries of human bartering. The grief and the betrayal need no explanation. They - and thus Herald - explain themselves.
This same simplicity makes the other characters just as gorgeously complex. Seth Holly (Ernie Hudson), the owner of the boarding house in which the play is set, is the son of a freeman and determined to build his own American dream. The young Jeremy Furlow (Andre Holland) is a lackadaisical womanizer who hopes to support himself by his guitar instead of backbreaking labor. Bynum Walker (Roger Robinson) is a "root walker" who practices ancient magic to make good things come and bad things vanish. Of the women, Mattie Campbell (Marsha Stephanie Blake) is mesmerized by romance, Molly Cunningham (Aunjanue Ellis) by flesh, and Martha Pentecost (Danai Gurira) by an adopted spirituality - but all except Seth's wife, Bertha (LaTanya Richardson Jackson), have lost touch with the earth that made them who they are.
This play, more than any of Wilson's others, reveals the seeds of the archetypes that push through conventional stereotyping in the plays later in the chronology. Not coincidentally, its ties are strongest to Gem of the Ocean (it's set in 1904, but premiered in 2004), which deals even more explicitly with the chains that restrained black Americans long after slavery officially ended. The two plays even share a character, the swampy itinerant salesman Rutherford Selig (played here by Arliss Howard), who can find anything or anyone for the right price. But this play's events echo straight through to the final play in the series (as both written and set), Radio Golf.
Wilson was a master of tight construction and smart retrofitting, so it's not surprising that this play satisfies so well in the grander context of his cycle. But even before all 10 plays were finished, this was obviously a lynchpin work of Wilson's career. Now, it's even more visibly a statement of the complex interplay between blacks, whites, servitude, and success, the framework of the always-under-construction bridge between the indignities of Old America and the challenge of the more united United States yet to come.
Disconnecting the play's events - and especially Herald's revelations - from reality completely subverts the entire point of the play: the indoctrination of African ritualism into the texture of American society, and what that means for both the giving and receiving cultures. If we're not forced to view Herald's hallucination in the context in which it's not openly welcomed, we can't see what he and all African-Americans were forced to sacrifice for assimilation. The scene becomes a showstopper and a parlor rick, not the expression of ancestral loss Wilson conceived. The end of the second act, when Herald hears the initial strains of the inner song he thought he'd lost, is just as cheesily rendered with the help of Brian MacDevitt's lights, as if the inner illumination of Herald's soul could not possibly be enough.
The shows Sher directs would greatly benefit from him getting over himself. The idea that both this play and Awake and Sing! (which also thrived on flying scenery) would demand the same staging gimmicks is unfair to Wilson, Odets, and audiences who deserve freshly imagined productions, not photocopies made from the same tattered template. That Sher mostly managed to contain himself with his megahit revival of South Pacific suggests this is a habit he can break.
Even so, Sher has elicited some strong performances from his actors. Hudson is a firmly yet comedically authoritative Seth, at his funniest and richest when things are at their most disordered. Robinson is a snug fit for the typical Wilsonian role of the sparkly, wizened know-it-all, and delivers his various speeches on the continuity of existence with an engaging verve. Holland is smooth and suave as the young man search for his way (and his woman) in the world. The women are all vivid in their own ways, and highly apt at showing all the different facets of late-turn-of-the-century femininity.
Coleman comes across the weakest: He's got the brooding stature and simmering voice he needs to pile-drive Herald's pain and rage into your heart, but the promise that bleeds through his portrayal never resolves into a fully articulated performance. In fairness, this is not entirely Coleman's fault. Because Herald's defining moments rest most squarely in Sher's experimental crosshairs, Coleman never gets the same opportunities the other actors do to prove the range of his talents.
In the few glimpses that do emerge, Coleman's Herald is angry, burdened with the weight of generations, but insinuatingly optimistic about the possibilities before him. These are all just the qualities Herald needs to assume the mantle of the "shining man" for whom Bynum has searched for so long. But it's because of Sher that Herald, Coleman, and the rest of Wilson's brilliant play never shine as brightly as they should.