One of the thrills of an August Wilson play is the atmosphere surrounding the story, as much as the story itself. Particularly in the 10-part Century Cycle chronicling the African-American experience during the 20th Century, the mood and the era are key elements. Plays & Players production of the second part of that cycle, JOE TURNER’S COME AND GONE, skillfully captures the tone and tension in the playwright’s work.
Set in 1911 in a Pittsburgh boarding house that brings together locals and newer travelers from the South who all seek new lives in the North, Wilson’s play weaves together stories of people searching for something while fighting their own demons: a troubled man (Herald Loomis) – with a young daughter (Zonia) – searching for the wife he lost thanks to the eponymous Joe Turner; a restless ladies man (Jeremy Furlow); a sweet young woman unlucky in love (Mattie Campbell); a beautiful and independent woman with a cool exterior (Molly Cunningham). They are all lost in different ways when they connect with each other, an old hoodoo man who has the power to “bind” people (Bynum Walker) and a traveling peddler and “people finder” (Rutherford Selig) in the house run by Seth and Bertha Holly.
The tense feeling is sparked when the lonely and frustrated Loomis arrives, having wandered the country for years in search of the wife he lost after being captured and put to work by Joe Turner (based on the real Joe Turney, brother of Tennessee governor Peter Turney, who forced black men into seven years of servitude). His unresolved anger seeps into the house and the lives of everyone there.
This is also a play that mixes magic and music with the more human struggles to find a place in the world and a sense of identity. Director Daniel Student creates the requisite tension between all these ideas and elements skillfully, while also bringing to life the warmth and simplicity of the everyday world in which these characters exist. His vision for the piece is clear and his staging is fluid, but there are times when the delivery and the pacing are a bit toodeliberate.
Damien Wallace anchors this production with his brilliant performance as Bynum. He marries humor, mysticism, wisdom and sadness into a characterization that is thrilling to experience. As Loomis, Kash Goins is a commanding and powerful presence; though the impression is sometimes stilted in the early scenes, he grows into a towering performance. With less dynamic material, James Tolbert as Seth and Cherie Jazmyn as Bertha create a very realistic relationship and are natural as they go about the business of running the household and become enmeshed in these other lives. Among the rest of the cast, Jamal Douglas is an energetic Jeremy, but sometimes seems too contemporary for this setting; Mlé Chester nicely portrays Molly’s superior attitude and her melting façade; Candace Thompson is a wonderfully wounded Mattie; Bob Weick is a suitably jovial and slightly creepy Selig; and Brett Gray is fresh, funny and engaging as Reuben, the neighborhood boy who befriends the shy and disconnected Zonia Loomis, well-played by Lauryn Jones.
Creatively and technically, this production is beautifully mounted. Andrew Cowles’ lighting design is evocative and focused, creating a strong sense of time, place and tone. Lance Kniskern’s set rises up from the realistic common areas of the house to a representational reflection of the building; this mirrors the fractured lives inside while also allowing for unusual views and shadows.
Additionally, choreographer A.C. Gilmore deserves particular praise for the spirited and moving “Juba” dance that becomes a galvanizing moment in this solid production.
JOE TURNER’S COME AND GONE
by August Wilson
Directed by Daniel Student
January 19 – February 4, 2012
Plays & Players Theatre
1714 Delancey Place
215-735-0630 or 1-800-595-4TIX