Joe Turner’s Come and Gone has come back to Broadway (a review)

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The caption for this Jacob Lawrence painting ("The Migration of the Negro, Panel no. 3) reads, "In every town Negroes were leaving by the hundreds to go North and enter into Northern industry." It's at the Phillips Collection (Washington, D.C.).

August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, set in 1911, deals with the separation of black people in America from their cultural roots. Most of the characters in this play had come to Pittsburgh from homes in the south — part of the “great migration” that was the subject of Jacob Lawrence’s remarkable series of paintings (above and below). August Wilson described it this way in his introduction to the play:

From the deep and the near South the sons and daughters of newly freed African slaves wander into the city. Isolated, cut off from memory, having forgotten the names of the gods and only guessing at their faces, they arrive dazed and stunned, their hearts kicking in their chests with a song worth singing. They arrive carrying Bibles and guitars, their pockets lined with dust and fresh hope . . . .

lawrence-jacob-migration-of-the-negro-panel-no-45

The caption for this Jacob Lawrence painting ("The Migration of the Negro, Panel no. 45) reads, "They arrived in Pittsburgh, one of the great industrial centers of the North, in large numbers."

But when we saw this play last weekend at the Belasco Theatre (West 44th Street, Broadway), we realized that at least one of the actresses was even less connected to the cultural milieu of August Wilson than the characters in the play were to their ancestors’ African heritage.

The telling moment came in the play’s final minutes, as Herald Loomis (Chad L. Coleman), meeting his wife Martha after ten years apart, becomes overwhelmed with bitter emotion and pulls a knife. Trying to bring him to his senses, Martha (Danai Gurira) urges him to “look to Jesus. Even if you done fell away from the church you can be saved again.”

Martha begins to quote the familiar words of the twenty-third Psalm. After a minute, the words of Scripture strike a chord with the distraught Herald Loomis:

MARTHA: “Even though I walk through the shadow of death — ”

LOOMIS: That’s just where I be walking!

MARTHA: “I shall fear no evil. For thou art with me. Thy staff and thy rod, they comfort me.”

LOOMIS: You can’t tell me nothing about no valleys. I done been all across the valleys . . . .

That’s how Martha’s line was spoken last Friday night: “Thy staff and thy rod, they comfort me.”

When he wrote this passage, August Wilson must have felt that he was making it easy for any actress playing Martha by giving her lines she would already know. Wilson himself surely learned Psalm 23 by heart at an early age; he must often have heard the verses spoken in church. The phrase “Thy rod and thy staff” (like other passages from the King James Bible) would have been part of Wilson’s cultural vocabulary, along with the tradition of gospel preaching also echoed in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.

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Danai Gurira

But it’s clear that Danai Gurira wasn’t familiar with Psalm 23 before she took on the part of Martha Pentecost — otherwise, she never would have transposed “staff” and “rod”. For her, this was just another line she had to learn. We couldn’t help wondering if this actress even knew the theological implications of the name “Pentecost” that her character had taken. (With some research, Emsworth has ascertained that Ms. Gurira is about 30 years old, a playwright as well as an actress, and a native of Zimbabwe. We infer that she never attended a Christian mission school in that horribly troubled country.)

It is, of course, unfair to this exceptionally well-acted production for Emsworth to dwell at such length on a minor blunder by one actress. (It’s especially unfair because we saw a preview performance.) In fact, the casting by director Bartlett Sher is one of the many strengths of this show. Each of the nine adult characters in the play is portrayed vividly and in high definition.

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Chad L. Coleman

The best part of seeing an August Wilson play is not necessarily the storyline, but the pleasure of getting to know the characters and watching them interact. But of the several Wilson plays we’ve seen on stage, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone has, we think, the most compelling plot and subplots. Former deacon Herald Loomis (Chad C. Coleman) arrives at Seth Holly’s boarding house shorn of his faith and looking for a wife from whom he was cruelly torn ten years earlier. Long-time boarder Bynum Walker (Roger Robinson) wants to find a shiny man that he met in a vision. Mattie Campbell (Marsha Stephanie Blake) wants to recover a husband who left her. 

And what of the various performances? We especially enjoyed Ernie Hudson’s performance as Seth Holly. the grumpy owner of the Pittsburgh boarding house where all the play’s action takes place. We think perhaps Holly was the character August Wilson himself liked the most: the only character born in the North, a devoted husband, a trick worker in a machine tool and die shop, the financially astute proprietor of two businesses on the side, a skilled metalworker, an aspiring entrepeneur, a small-scale vegetable gardener, and a man impatient with the superstitions and unsettled ways of his boarders from the south. We also appreciated Latanya Richardson Jackson as Seth’s tolerant, warm-hearted wife Bertha.

playbillBut the finest performance in the show is given by Roger Robinson as the Hollys’ boarder Bynum Walker.  He’s a “hoodoo” man who makes potions with roots and pigeon blood, and he has the ability to “bind” people together (with the qualification that “You can’t bind what don’t cling”!). The scene in the play that Emsworth remembers most vividly is not one that was acted on stage, but instead a scene described by Bynum, the dramatic story of his magical encounter with the “shiny man” who showed him how to find his “song,” the “Binding Song.”

It’s a banner year for theater-going when you get to see not one, but two August Wilson plays. See Emsworth’s review of a remarkably good production of Fences in Rochester in June. Here’s the link.

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