BOTTOM LINE: If you don’t mind a play with a lot of talking and not a lot that “happens," this production of an August Wilson play is incredibly rewarding and sends you out on an emotional high.
Joe Turner’s Come and Gone is one of the ten plays in August Wilson’s “Pittsburgh cycle;" each play depicts a different decade in the 20th century, and all but one are set in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, an area once considered to be the center of African-American life in Pittsburgh. This is the first revival of Joe Turner’s Come and Gone since its original Broadway production in 1988. But in the last eight years, Wilson’s work has been produced somewhat regularly in New York...three of his plays have premiered on Broadway since 2001 (King Hedley II, Gem of the Ocean, and Radio Golf). Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom was revived on Broadway in 2003. And the Signature Theatre Company devoted their 2006-2007 season to August Wilson, producing King Hedley II, Seven Guitars, and Two Trains Running. The other three plays in the cycle are Jitney, The Piano Lesson, and Fences (and Wilson won Pulitzer prizes for both The Piano Lesson and Fences).
Wilson’s plays all deal with the lives of African-Americans in the 20th century, but they have other things in common as well. All have ensemble casts of between six and eleven characters, all are very “talky” and reward those who listen to the poetry and rhythm of the language, and all are primarily realistic in tone but have a touch of mysticism and magic. That said, some of Wilson’s plays are better than others, and the success of his plays have a lot to do with the quality of the productions. Fortunately, this Lincoln Center Theater production of Joe Turner’s Come and Gone is stunning.
Joe Turner’s Come and Gone is the “1910s” play. It takes place in 1911, during a period when many African-Americans were migrating north, leaving the farms in the south and settling in urban centers of industrialization like Chicago, New York and Pittsburgh. Set in a boarding house, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone captures the transient nature of this time, in which freed slaves and their children began traveling the country in search of better lives than they had in the southern states. The play gets its name from an early blues song; Joe Turner (actually Joe Turney, brother of Tennessee Governor Pete Turney) would illegally kidnap newly freed slaves and force them to work for him for seven years. One of these kidnapped men is Herald Loomis, one of the central characters in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. Loomis was separated from his family after being kidnapped and forced to work on a chain gang; with his young daughter in tow, he arrives at Seth Holly’s boarding house in search of his wife.
Much of the first act of Joe Turner’s Come and Gone sets out and develops the various characters; most of the play is quite talky and it may seem like not much is happening. For this reason, some may find Joe Turner’s Come and Gone a bit boring. It isn’t necessarily clear from the outset where the play is going, and some characters may seem extraneous (I don’t agree, but it is something that critics have argued in the past). If you need a lot of action to sit through 2 hours and 40 minutes of a play, you might want to look elsewhere.
But I found this production riveting. Every member of the ensemble is terrific; they all give you a clear sense of each character the minute they appear onstage, which enables audiences to enjoy the characters from the beginning. I don’t mean that the cast rests on simple stereotypes, they don’t at all. But the combination of Wilson’s writing and the excellent performances allows you to immediately sink into the world of the play, without needing a lot of background information to understand what is going on.
But as good as the cast is, this production truly soars because of director Bartlett Sher, known to New York audiences for directing the Lincoln Center Theater productions of Awake and Sing, The Light in the Piazza, and the revival of South Pacific. Sher is quickly becoming one of my favorite directors...everything he does is subtly beautiful. Sher’s choices are noticeable, but they are always appropriate and never overwhelm the piece and his direction of Joe Turner’s Come and Gone is no exception. It is worth mentioning that Sher is the first white man to direct a Broadway production of an August Wilson play. Wilson’s plays are all concerned with the specificity of the African-American experience in the United States, and with the various effects of racial identity; he therefore always demanded African-American directors for the high-profile productions of his plays. While Wilson died of cancer in 2005, I’d like to think he would applaud Sher’s direction of this piece. While I don’t want to give much away, Sher’s use of the set is beautiful, and what he does with the final moments of the piece took my breath away–it was the perfect way to theatricalize both Loomis’s awakening and the magical realism of the moment.
If you have never seen an August Wilson play, go see this production of Joe Turner’s Come and Gone- it is a great introduction to one of the most important American playwrights of the 20th century. If you have seen Wilson’s work before, you’ll have some sense of his style (while I always enjoy a Wilson play, I must admit that some of them can seem a bit long, especially if they are directed too didactically). I’m sure there are those who will find this production long as well...this certainly isn’t a play to see when you’re tired or at the end of a long week. But I’ve seen every Broadway production of a Wilson play since 2001 (I missed the season at the Signature Theatre), and this is definitely the best production I have seen. So as long as you don’t mind a play in which not a lot “happens," I highly recommend Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.
(Joe Turner’s Come and Gone plays at the Belasco Theatre, 111 W. 44th St, through June 14th. Performances are Tuesday through Saturday at 8pm, Wednesday and Saturday at 2pm, and Sunday at 3pm. Running time is approximately 2 hours 40 minutes. Tickets are $46.50- $96.50. Visit telecharge.com to buy tickets and visit lct.org, Lincoln Center Theater’s website, for more information.)