Joe Turner's Come and Gone
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
April 17, 2009
There really was a Joe Turner, though his name was actually Joe Turney—he was the brother of a governor of Tennessee around the turn of the last century, who became notorious for rounding up Negroes and essentially kidnapping them into a kind of forced servitude for seven years at a stretch. (Read about Turney here.) W.C. Handy put Turney into a song but called him Joe Turner in it, and from this comes the title of August Wilson's potent and indelible play, now revived brilliantly by Lincoln Center Theater by director Bartlett Sher.
One of the principal characters in Joe Turner's Come and Gone is a man named Herald Loomis, a victim of Turner/Turney's unpunished crimes. When we meet him, he's arrived at a Pittsburgh boarding house, his daughter Zonia in tow, searching for his wife Martha. He hasn't seen Martha in over a decade, since before his seven years toiling for Joe Turner. He gives the "People Finder" Rutherford Selig a dollar to locate Martha. He also gets help from a longtime resident of this boarding house, a "conjur man" named Bynum Walker who knows how to bind people together.
Loomis's story is just one of several told concurrently by Wilson in this play, though. We spend a lot of time with the proprietor of the boarding house, Seth Holly, who works the night shift at one of the mills and supplements his income further by making pots and pans out of scrap metal which he sells to Selig, an itinerant peddler. Seth wants to turn this side business into a full-fledged enterprise but he can't find a white man willing to lend him the money he needs to launch it. Meanwhile his wife Bertha watches over the boarding house and its tenants and keeps it going with her faith and pragmatism.
There's also a young man newly arrived at the Hollys', by the name of Jeremy Furlow. He's just arrived from North Carolina and is hoping to make his fortune. His inability to always play by the rules imposed on the African American community by the whites who run Pittsburgh makes him restless and gets him into trouble. But he's encouraged that he can win a dollar a night when he makes music with his guitar at a local saloon. He's interested in the ladies, and we meet two women whom he dallies with during the course of the play as well.
All of the figures in this piece are held back by the institutionalized racism that was everywhere in America in 1911, when this play unfolds. But Wilson's main theme isn't injustice; Joe Turner's Come and Gone is an epic exploration of the African American diaspora, when in the decades following the Civil War blacks left the plantations of the South for the cities of the North looking for work and looking for a place and a mode to set down roots. It's a story that has not been told enough in our country in our time, and though it echoes that of other groups who were forced to scatter and refind themselves after one cataclysm or another, it's a uniquely American tale that sits at the root of our collective character.
For me, the most resonant scene in a play filled with great writing is one near the end of Act One where the residents of the boarding house have a Juba. It's Sunday night and all have enjoyed Bertha's fried chicken dinner and are ready to relax, to cut loose. They dance this dance of their slave ancestors with abandon. And though the people around this table have come to Pittsburgh from many different places in the American South, all know this dance. It's a ritual of their people, a powerful thing that unites and holds together these disparate wanderers.
Wilson gets inside these wandering souls and teaches us some of what they must have felt and gone through. That's his genius.
But he's titled this play Joe Turner's Come and Gone, and those last two words are the key to its ultimate message. For if this is a play about diaspora, it's also one that revels in and celebrates hard-won freedom. The miseries and injustices of the past are part of each and every man and woman in Wilson's work, but their ability to look ahead, to make their way in a world of their own design and choosing, is what all must finally move toward.
Sher's production feels pretty much flawless, featuring a stunning set by Michael Yeargan that is "built" before our eyes in the show's first few moments. Costumes (Catherine Zuber), lighting (Brian MacDevitt), sound (Scott Lehrer and Leon Rothenberg), and music (Taj Mahal) all join together with Yeargan's design to build a magical-real world within which the piece unfolds. The ensemble of eleven is uniformly strong, though a few standouts should be named, notably Roger Robinson as the shrewd, wise, and charmed old man Bynum; Ernie Hudson and LaTanya Richardson Jackson as the Hollys; and Arliss Howard as the "Finder" Selig (Howard has a remarkable monologue in which he explains the various ways his family has been "finding Nigras" over the centuries; he allows us to understand that the moral question of slavery never enters into his thinking, because the inherent difference between the races is so firmly ingrained within it).
Joe Turner's Come and Gone is rewarding and full and—that rarity in theatre—authentically cathartic. In a Broadway season that has given us a real bumper crop of excellent plays to enjoy, this is one I can unconditionally recommend and even dub a must-see. Wilson shares so much of the human experience with us in this admirable and powerful play.