When the late great playwright August Wilson set out to document the African-American experience, he didn’t stop at just one play. He wrote 10, now referred to as his Pittsburgh Cycle or Century Cycle, each play set in a different decade of the 20th century. Some are merely good. Two have won the Pulitzer Prize. Four more were nominated.
Joe Turner’s Come and Gone belongs to that last group. And after viewing TheatreWorks' powerful new production, you may wonder why it wasn't among those that captured the most prestigious award in American theater.
(Side note: Joe Turner's Come and Gone occupies its own niche in recent history as the play that Barack and Michelle Obama saw on Broadway five months after the president was inaugurated.)
Set in 1911, the play tells the story of the first wave of African-Americans to migrate from the agrarian South to the urban North. They sought jobs. They sought equality. But most of all, they sought a new and meaningful identity for themselves and their children.
What they got was a different matter. Jobs were plentiful, but only if your skin was white. Equality was just a far-off dream. As for the meaning of life, well, as one character says early in the play, “You got to figure that out for yourself.”
Joe Turner's Come and Gone centers on the hardworking and ambitious Seth, who runs a boarding house frequented by many of the newly arrived migrants, and his wife Bertha, who runs Seth.
As the play opens, Seth has just two concerns: raising the money needed to expand his tinsmithing business and stopping their oldest boarder from sacrificing pigeons in the backyard.
But then a tall, brooding man with the name of Herald Loomis arrives at the boardinghouse, his little girl in tow. He claims to be a preacher, but there’s nothing saintly about him. His every word bristles with anger, and when he talks about Joe Turner, a mysterious figure whom he blames all his troubles on, we can’t be sure whether he’s talking about a man or something else.
The production is directed by Clinton Turner Davis, a Colorado College professor who has dedicated much of his career to interpreting the works of Wilson. And in this production it shows, most particularly in the care the entire cast takes to make Wilson's sometimes-difficult language accessible.
Seth and Bertha are played with warmth and humor by Cris Davenport and local actress Lynne Hastings. Timothy C. Johnson gives a finely nuanced performance as Bynum, an aging "conjure man" who keeps his spiritual gifts hidden beneath an amiable exterior until they’re called forth in a scene of breathtaking intensity.
Of the leads, only Calvin M. Thompson as Herald still needs time to grow into his character. With his menacing presence, it was impossible not to keep my eyes riveted on him every moment he was on stage. But in the end, his performance was too one-note, failing to evoke an emotional transformation that was critical to the resolution of the entire work.
On the tech side, Matthew Myhrum’s sprawling set was gorgeous, but I found it almost too gorgeous, lacking a lived-in feeling.
Like most of Wilson’s work, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone is not a play you can just sit back and watch. It begs to be pondered and talked about and wrestled with. But those who put in the effort will be richly rewarded.
Read more coverage about the play here.