Regional Reviews: Boston
Joe Turner's Come and Gone
Bynum is a fixture of the Pittsburgh boarding house where the story takes place in August Wilson's Joe Turner's Come and Gone. He's a wise old sage with a lifetime of stories and he'll tell his tales to anyone who'll listen. After a life of wandering from place to place, he's looking for the "shiny man" who will complete his quest and allow him to finally die at peace.
"Seem like everybody looking for something," Bynum says. This search is the core of the play, which The Huntington has chosen to reopen its newly renovated Huntington Theatre. In 1986, this was the first August Wilson play performed at The Huntington (then the Huntington Theatre Company), with a cast that included Delroy Lindo and Angela Bassett. Now, Lili-Anne Brown takes the directorial reins in a new production that is beautifully rendered in its intimacy.
Set in 1911, Wilson's play (part of his ten-part American Century Cycle) explores the fragile community that forms at a respectable boarding house where people stop in for a warm bed and two meals a day before they continue on their journey. The characters reflect a cross section of Black Americans at the start of the twentieth century, searching for their place in this nation, a land where the specter of slavery still looms less than 50 years after its abolition. We drop in on a few of these wanderers–all on their own quest, as Bynum would say, to find their song.
Joe Turner's Come and Gone feels like a patchwork quilt of styles, shifting mood to suit its mishmash of characters bound together by their circumstances. The boarding house owners, Seth and Bertha Holly (Maurice Emmanuel Parent and Shannon Lamb, both strong), ground the play in realism as a long-married couple with clear love for each other despite his flinty exterior and her wry ripostes. Seth, born a free man in the North, finds himself out of step with his fellow Black Americans who expect more than they are given–whether a job or a roof over their heads. Into the mix, Wilson adds the folksy lyricism of Bynum's stories, plus the broader comedy of young musician Jeremy's (Stewart Evan Smith) flirtations with fellow boarders Molly (Dela Meskienyar) and Mattie (Al-nisa Petty).
But it's James Milord's entrance as Herald Loomis that gives the play its pulse, conjuring the ghosts who haunt the edges of Wilson's writing. Milord, with his shell-shocked eyes and spectral presence, is riveting as the imposing Loomis, who stops at this house with his young daughter Zonia along his tireless search to find his wife Martha. Hearing his shadowy rasp of a voice, you can feel the weight of his years of imprisonment and the burden he carries with him as he roams the world searching for the woman he's lost.
As the days tick by, and the howling wind outside the doors picks up (the effective sound design is by Aubrey Dube), Loomis begins to unpack the toll of his seven years spent imprisoned on the chain gang. Milord's performance resonates with that horror and the unshakeable pain he's carried since, still tethered even in his freedom to that grueling fate. It's his palpable anguish that takes hold of this production and propels it to its unsettling climax.
Despite the general excellence of Brown's production, the poetry of Wilson's language doesn't always feel as potent as I wish it did. In particular, Robert Cornelius gives a warm and lived-in performance as Bynum, but his delivery in his long, lyrical monologues often feels tentative. This may be an issue of direction, especially when he is staged with his back to half the audience during his first pivotal scene.
But even with these qualms, this revival of Joe Turner's Come and Gone is richly acted and full of life. Brown's production hums with music and laughter, with this community of characters finding healing through a fragment of a song or an impromptu dance. The climax is searing, as Loomis finally confronts what he's been searching for and embraces his chance at freedom. It's an ambiguous conclusion, but in Brown's hands, the last moments feel hopeful. Like the Secret of Life he tantalizes us with, Wilson leaves us to figure out where his characters go from here. Has Loomis (and the many others who are out there searching) finally figured it out for himself?
Joe Turner's Come and Gone runs through November 13, 2022, at The Huntington, Huntington Theatre, 264 Huntington Ave., Boston MA. For tickets and information, please visit huntingtontheatre.org, call 617-266-0800, or visit the Huntington box office in person.