Marsha Stephanie Blake, Chad L. Coleman, Michael Cummings, Aunjanue Ellis, Danai Gurira, Andre Holland, Arliss Howard, Ernie Hudson, Latanya Richardson Jackson, Amari Rose Leigh, Roger Robinson
August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, which originally opened on Broadway in 1988, seems at home returning to Broadway in a Lincoln Center Theater production in the midst of a season where revivals of spectacular plays have been springing up everywhere.
Joe Turner, the 1910s-set unit within Wilson’s 10-play Century Cycle, is a play of both intimate and epic proportions, full of wisdom and concerned simultaneously with its workaday characters and its larger-than-life themes.
When the mysterious Herald Loomis and his daughter Zonia arrive at Seth and Bertha’s boarding house in Pittsburgh, the quiet ways of its inhabitants are soon set spinning. Herald is looking for his wife Martha, whom he lost track of years back, and he won’t rest until he’s found her.
Meanwhile, upstart womanizer Jeremy, another boarder, finds himself taking a liking to two women at once, a pursuit of which the local soothsayer, Bynum, disapproves, though he’s ultimately more concerned with Loomis, whom he believes to have lost his song, his individual voice in the world.
Wilson’s poetic language, which has a rhythm in and of itself, is spoken with ease by a magnificent ensemble cast, headed by the solid-looking Chad L. Coleman as Herald Loomis and Roger Robinson, who makes a suitably hard and mystical Bynum.
The music of Wilson’s text has been entrusted by Lincoln Center to its resident director, Bartlett Sher, the director of beautiful musical productions the likes of The Light in the Piazza and South Pacific, an unlikely choice for this particular job mostly because of Wilson’s oft-expressed dislike of white directors for his work, which he believed best-suited to those with the cultural vantage point to personally connect with his characters.
Nevertheless, Sher does a fine job (he was approved by Wilson’s widow), entrusting the design of his production to a skilled team, who set the play within an ever-shifting quasi-reality. Matthew Yeargan’s sets float in and out of the rafters as the parameters of Wilson’s textually realistic world begin to blur. Music by Taj Mahal fits the twangy rhythm of the play perfectly, providing a perfect foil to the boarders’ traditional juba dance.
For all this talk about music, you’d think the production was a musical, but there are plenty of moments of silence throughout. Joe Turner, like many of Wilson’s plays, breathes during its pauses, in the moments where characters clash in unexpected ways; these moments are handled here with absolute mastery by both Sher and his cast.
Of all his plays Joe Turner is one of Wilson’s with the most overtly religious themes. This revival seems apropos in an age where, as during the Reagan era when it premiered, the power of evangelical Christians looms omnipresent over politics – and in the legislation of the “American way of life.” Herald Loomis’s ultimate struggle is a humanistic one, one that culminates in his finding his song. It’s a journey that takes many of us on a winding lifelong journey. Sher’s production of this great play manages to give us a hint of that journey in a three-hour span, and it’s a satisfying hint at that.