Finding the Necessary Song

joe-turner-goneWhen the curtain rises on August Wilson’s brilliant play Joe Turner’s Come and Gone in the new Lincoln Center production, directed by Bartlett Sher, we see a huge sky and two people walking along a road. The man is tall and dark, dressed in a long black coat and a black hat, and holding the hand of a young girl. They press forward, as if driven by the winds and their own need. This stark and powerful image of seeking drives the mythic significance of the whole play. Set in 1911 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Joe Turner embodies the great black migration from the South to the North in the early decades of the twentieth century, a journey of hope, but also of confusion and often unsatisfied expectations.

As the character Seth Holly, who runs a boarding house in Pittsburgh, remarks: “These niggers coming up here with that old backward country style of living. . . . niggers drop everything and head North looking for freedom . . . . walking . . . riding . . . carrying their Bibles.” Holly has disdain for their naiveté. His father was a free black man in the North. But what we discover in the course of the play is the spiritual hunger and strength of these black men and women walking North, looking to escape Jim Crow, poverty, and injustice. They may not always know exactly what they are seeking, but they know what they are leaving behind.

As Harold Loomis, the man in the long black coat, tells it: he was a church deacon preaching on the road to some gamblers outside of Memphis “when Joe Turner, brother of the governor of the great sovereign state of Tennessee, swooped down on us and grabbed everybody there. Kept us all seven years.” Loomis, innocent of any crime, spent seven years imprisoned on a chain gang just for being at the wrong place at the wrong time. What he lost was huge: his wife and infant daughter, his sharecropping place, and -- most importantly -- his soul. He is the wanderer with the little girl, whom we first see crossing the stage, whose search for his wife Martha forms the through line of the narrative.

Of course Joe Turner is an ensemble piece, and all of the characters have stories and histories, and disorientations. All need healing, or as the conger-man Bynum Walker says, they need their “song” because “A fellow forget that he and forget who he is. Forget how he’s supposed to mark down life.” It is the special need of slaves and the children of slaves to find their song because they have been forcibly removed from their African history, their families, their lineage, their culture.

Wilson’s play brings great power to this theme of African Americans finding themselves through work, love, magic, their music, and old tribal customs. Act one ends with the boarding house inhabitants after Sunday dinner performing “Juba” -- a kind of call-and-response dance carried by slaves from Africa to the South. It is a raucous happy moment on stage, free and wild, with stomping, dancing, drumming, shuffling. Every one joins in, until Loomis shows up and demands that they stop. Loomis is the lost man, who darkens the lively scene with his presence. His rage and hurt are deep.

The liveliness of Juba is that of deep joy and belonging, and certainly one of Wilson’s strengths as a playwright lies in his bringing such moments to life on stage. Juba is a ritual of religious significance, calling down the Holy Ghost and awakening the spirit within.

Other equally powerful moments occur in Joe Turner when stories are told, dreams acted out, visions described, personal demons exorcised -- all elevating this work from a realistic social drama into the more exciting realm of mythic ceremony. At times this compelling production is fierce, dark and even frightening. It is also filled with human warmth, generosity, and high-spirited sexual tension. All of the actors bring truth and commitment to their roles, most particularly Chad L. Coleman as Harold Loomis and Roger Robinson as Bynum Walker.

Director Bartlett Sher is to be commended for the force and depth of this production, set designer Michael Yeargan for it beauty and large vision, Brian MacDevitt for the evocative lighting, and Catherine Zuber for the effective costumes. The unusual visual power of this Lincoln Center production is a worthy partner to the dramatic and verbal power of Wilson’s play. Joe Turner’s Come and Gone lifts the audience up and carries it to a significant time and place in American history when the fate of Black Americans was beginning to be shaped anew after the Civil War. It is an unsentimental vision, filled with both joy and sorrow, one of August Wilson’s masterworks, and a reminder of how great was the American theatre’s loss when he died in 2005. - Victoria Sullivan

At the Belasco Theatre, 111 West 44th Street

victoria.jpg

Ms. Sullivan is a poet and playwright who lives in Manhattan and has a little cabin outside of Woodstock, NY. When not brooding, she is generally traveling, writing, or staring at the trees. She also loves to laugh.

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