Joe Turner’s Come and Gone
By August Wilson
November 5-December 14, 2008
Directed by Delroy Lindo
No matter what your politics, you had to feel the weight of history sitting in Berkeley Repertory Theater on opening night of “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” just after this country elected its first African American president. Chronologically the second in the late August Wilson’s towering ten-play cycle that chronicles the black experience in America, “Joe Turner” was completed in 1988 and performed after the success of the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Fences” (1987) and “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” (1984). In the original cast was a young actor named Delroy Lindo, who took the pivotal part of Harold Loomis, a beaten-down victim of the aftermath of Reconstruction who finds a kind of transcendence at the end of the play. What goes around comes around and Lindo directs this Berkeley Rep production of the show.
Set in 1911, at the height of the African American migration from the South to the North, the story takes place in a Pittsburgh boarding house run by the Hollys: Seth (Barry Shabaka Henley), a decent, genial man of little imagination who makes pots and pans for a living and grumbles about his tenants on his day off, and Bertha (Kim Staunton) a wise, caring earth mother to all who walk in the door. The tenant of longest tenure, Bynum (Brent Jennings) gives Seth plenty to grumble about. A self-styled shaman who sees visions, dispenses cures and sprinkles pigeon blood in mystic circles around the backyard (he buys the pigeons from the kid next door), Bynum is is the city-bred Seth’s best friend and worst nightmare, all at the same time.
Jeremy (Dan Guillory) is a young man, newly arrived from the South with hope in his heart, nothing in his pockets, a guitar in his hand and an eye for the ladies. He is romancing two of them, Mattie Campbell (Tiffany Michelle Thompson), a deserted woman who he has brought in to live with him and elegant Molly Cunningham (Erica Peeples) who also has rented a room. The deck is thus stacked when a wild card, the strange aloof Herald Loomis (Teagle F. Bougere) arrives, dragging his daughter in tow. Loomis (the part played by director Lindo on Broadway 20 years ago) is the linchpin of the play. He is damaged goods, impressed into hard labor for years by the infamous Joe Turner of the title (an actual historical figure, brother of the governor of Tennessee, who lured African Americans into crap games, then had them arrested and freed them only to take them down the Mississippi to work on farms). When Loomis finally got away, he returned to his home to find his wife gone and his daughter living with her grandma. He and the little girl (Nia Renee Warren, who will share the role with Inglish Amore Hills) have been looking for their wife and mother ever since.
Loomis has a touch of the mystical about him, despite his dour countenance and taciturn remarks. He and Bynum relate on a mysterious magical level twice in the play, once in the first act and again at the end and it is their interaction that brings about a sea change in just about everybody. Both men are superb. The rest of the cast, which also includes Dan Hiatt as an itinerant peddler and Kenya Brome as Loomis’ wife (yup, he finds her) cannot be faulted either, with the exception of Guillory and young Keanu Beausier who played a neighbor boy who makes friends with Loomis’ daughter. The complaint is that both of them spoke their lines so quickly they were nearly unintelligible.
It’s a small quibble with a drama that packs such a powerful punch. August Wilson has made an indelible mark on the American theater scene with his plays, depicting the everyday lives of African Americans climbing up from the depths of slavery and discrimination to achieve the American dream. It’s too bad he didn’t live until Election Night 2008 to see how far one of them really could climb.
– Suzanne Weiss