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Joe Turner’s Come and GoneTheater Review

by Harvey Perr

published April 24, 2009


Joe Turner’s Come and Gone

now playing on Broadway at the Belasco Theater


When a playwright refers to a particular play as his favorite play, it could be for a multitude of reasons, and does not always mean that it is his best play. Sometimes the playwright is just protecting  his play against criticism, because it is the one that’s the most personal and is in the greatest need of being held more closely to one’s heart, because, being so personal, it is the most bruising, and, therefore, the most easily bruised.  Joe Turner’s Come and Gone is all these things and it is August Wilson’s favorite play and, now, in this towering Lincoln Center Theater revival, under Bartlett Sher’s glowing direction, it also emerges as Mr. Wilson’s best play. There is nowhere in town a play so generous, so forgiving, so rich in the glories of American language, so simply and beautifully structured and so alive with the fullness of its people. Out of this natural spring gushes forth a flood of emotional and historical truths that may literally leave you weeping. This reviewer admits to having wept, at play’s end, at the aching beauty of it all. To be in the presence of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town and August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone in one season is to get a full dose of stage poetry at its richest and most deeply felt.


joe turner's come and goneIt is a hot August in Pittsburgh, circa 1911 and we’re in the boardinghouse of Seth and Bertha Holly (Ernie Hudson and Latanya Richardson Jackson). Bertha is making her biscuits. Seth dreams about plans to turn the pots and pans he makes into a viable business, despite his failures to get the loan he needs from the town’s rich Jews. Negroes, mostly newly-freed slaves, from all over, we are told, are moving north, their Bibles in hand, their guitars on their backs. There are already a few guests, one of them Bynum (Roger Robinson), who got his name because he has a way of binding things, and who tells fantastical tales about almost any subject that comes up, and one in particular about a shiny man he once saw and hopes to see again. And there’s Jeremy (Andre Holland), a healthy young man with healthy young desires and who makes the most indecent suggestions in the most decent way possible. And into their lives comes a haunted young man, Harold Loomis (Chad L. Coleman), and his daughter Zonia (Amari Rose Leigh), in search of  Martha, the wife and mother who has deserted them. Harold is so tensed up that he, at times, can hardly move at all, can hardly get the words out of his mouth. When the words do come out, it sounds at times as if he is speaking in tongues. It is Harold, one suspects, who speaks for Wilson, and it is fascinating to hear how sparse and limited is Harold’s language, when we know, from the body of the author’s work, how eloquently language pours out of him.


joe turner's come and goneThere is also Rutherford Selig (Arliss Howard), a white peddler with a knack for finding lost Negroes; Mattie Campbell (Marsha Stephanie Blake), the sort of young woman that is always falling for the sort of man who is apt to leave her alone and in mourning for the bastard; Molly Cunningham (Aunjanue Ellis) who has no such respect for men but who takes great pleasure in the good times she can have with them. 


This is a boardinghouse that is at once fragile (Michael Yeargan’s exquisite set gets built before our eyes, never puts up its walls, lowers and raises its windows) and sturdy (Bertha’s biscuits remind us of that, as does the fact that all that raucous stamping  - of the tribal dancing that almost everyone gets into the spirit of  - doesn’t bring it down). And how Wilson weaves his tapestry out of the disparate lives and dreams of his characters is wondrous to behold, as is Sher’s skill with the ensemble he has put together to make them dance and, ultimately, as Wilson keeps urging them to do, “sing.”


The last scene in which Loomis’s Martha (Danai Gurira) is found is a farewell scene rather than a reunion, but it is also the scene in which Loomis finds his feet and his voice and Bynum sees his shiny man again. The little touch of magic that Sher finds in this scene is a perfect embodiment of what Wilson is after. In this large cast, special mention should be made of Robinson’s Bynum, Coleman’s Loomis, Blake’s genuinely touching Mattie, and Hudson’s Seth.


August Wilson’s favorite play has been given its due and it is with us again and, since it wasn’t all that big a success the first time it appeared, every serious lover of theater should embrace it this time around. We should  definitely rejoice: Joe Turner’s Come and Gone has found its voice and, hallelujah, it “sings.”


harveyperr @


all photos are by T. Charles Erickson


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