When Clinton Turner Davis first directed Joe Turner's Come and Gone, he found himself sitting behind the playwright in the opening night audience. Naturally, Davis was nervous. But after a record-breaking curtain call, he says, August Wilson turned to him with a tear in his eye and said, "That's just what I had in mind."
That was at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Later, Davis directed a production at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire and, once again, Wilson was in front of him on opening night. This time, the playwright told him, "That's better than what I had in mind."
"And I thought, 'Holy mackerel!'" Davis says, laughing.
Now Davis, adjunct associate professor of directing and literature at Colorado College, will lend his skill to TheatreWorks' upcoming production of Turner, directing a mix of locals and performers from New York and Los Angeles.
The play is part of Wilson's "Pittsburgh Cycle," 10 works exploring the African-American experience in each decade of the 20th century. In Turner, the action is set in a boarding house in 1911, full of people searching for their identities after having left their home (the agrarian South) for a new world (the industrial North). Turner, a white man notorious for kidnapping freed blacks to work on his chain gangs, is a mythical figure who never appears on stage.
Lynne Hastings, who plays Bertha, the boarding house matriarch, has been acting here since 1996.
"There are other shows that I've done with black casts and white directors, so this has been a different experience, working in Colorado Springs," says the 42-year-old, who's reveling in the collaboration with Davis, who is African-American. "He's just one of those people you want to work with in town."
Calvin Thompson, 28, came from New York to play Herald, one of Turner's victims.
"I told myself before I got here that I want to be a sponge and soak up as much as I can — to learn from Clinton and the work, and honor the work."
Turner, first staged in 1984, was a 1988 Tony Award nominee for Best Play.
"When I first read it, I really kind of scratched the surface," says Davis, who's now directed the story a handful of times. "But with each subsequent production, my understanding has grown deeper and, in a way, profound."
He says the experiences of characters like these "created this gumbo of America."
"You cannot deny it; you cannot diminish it. Because it is so relevant to who these people are. And, ultimately, who they are becoming."