Penumbra Theatre's Joe Turner has come.
In Penumbra Theatre's season-long tribute to Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson, this opening production of Joe Turner's Come and Gone tells the story of a man and a people whose song has been taken from them and who are struggling to recover it. From the moment the actors step on stage to the play's closing line, Penumbra Theater's excellent 25th anniversary year production of Joe Turner sings with the music, poetry and pathos of the nine characters' journey towards self-empowerment.
It's 1911 in Pittsburgh. Reconstruction's promises to freed slaves have been abandoned, white supremacists have re-exerted their ruthless exploitation of blacks in the South, and blacks are trickling north to find new lives. On Ken Evans' detailed set of the kitchen and front parlor of Seth and Bertha Holly's working class boarding house home, characters come and go, but the eccentric medicine man, Bynum, lives in semi-permanent residence. When the mysterious Herald Loomis and his 11-year old daughter take a room, Loomis's brooding presence disrupts the house and realigns the lives of those within it.
In outstanding ensemble acting, there's hardly a weak note. The difficult role of Loomis, a man deeply damaged by his abduction and seven years of forced labor on a chain gang, requires an actor who can fill the stage with his darkness. John Earl Jelkes succeeds and, with few words, telegraphs his character's unpredictability and pain.
Penumbra veteran James Craven plays Seth Holly with fierce but likeable flair, and Greta Ogelsby plays a fine Bertha, the warm and sensible anchor of the household. As the grandfatherly Bynum, Adolphus Ward shines; he's a kindly and intuitive African shaman, a "bindin' man" in his own parlance, a man who works ceremonies to bring the right people together. The always engaging Kevin West is irrepressible Jeremy, a recently arrived Southern boy, and Crystal Martin plays Mattie, a sweet young woman who is unlucky in love. Terry Hempleman catches the right opportunistic persona as Selig, a travelling salesman who comes from a line of runaway slave catchers, and Pamela Lambert fairly sizzles as the sexual Molly. Also outstanding is Jasmine Gilbert as Loomis' young daughter. Tonia Jackson fills a smaller role and young Tyler Salone as the neighbor boy is sometimes hard to hear.
Recognized nationally for his direction of Wilson's plays, director Claude Purdy draws authentic performances from his cast, and their characters feel as real as everyday friends and neighbors. If the pacing in the first act is a little slow, I am grateful for the unhurried delivery of Wilson's script; I would not want to miss one word of Wilson's script.
Wilson, who sat in the audience on opening night, should be pleased with this deeply felt production of Joe Turner. The play sings with the history of black and white Americana and continues to be relevant for our new century. We must know the pains and wrongs of the past in order to harmonize as Americans in the future.
Joe Turner has Come and Gone plays through November 3 at the Penumbra Theatre, 270, North Kent Street, St. Paul. Tickets; $26-$30. Call 651-224-3180 or visit www.penumbratheatre.org.
Also recommended, Pillsbury House Theatre's Boesman and Lena, South African playwright Athol Fugard's 1970 look from the inside of South Africa's repressive system of Apartheid. Featuring veteran actors Faye Price and James Williams as poor, homeless and colored, Boesman and Lena. Neither black nor white, they search for a place to belong in a world of rigidly applied apartheid race classification. Until Nov. 9. Wed.-Sat. 7:30 p.m. Pillsbury House Theatre, 3501, Chicago Ave. South, Mpls. Tickets $15. Call 612-825-0459.