The setting for August Wilson's magnificent "Joe Turner's Come and Gone" is a boardinghouse in 1911 Pittsburgh, but the spiritual location is a crossroads between the ghostly past and the forbidding future, slavery and freedom, despair and hope.
The great migration from the sharecropping South to the industrialized North is underway, and the characters of this crushingly beautiful play have no choice but to reassess the two strands of their African American identities. The change promised by a new century may be slow and incomplete, but it has come and it is unstoppable.
This powerfully acted production of "Joe Turner's Come and Gone," which opened Wednesday at the Mark Taper Forum under the direction of Phylicia Rashad, is a gift for audiences hungering for theatrical nourishment after being fed a steady diet of snacks.
Fortified with history, politics and religion, the play bursts with the rituals of communal life. Wilson's ambition was "to write plays that contain the sum total of black culture in America." He wanted to put life itself onstage, complete with wayward incident and gossipy filler. Tragedy and comedy are united in a portrait that patiently chronicles the customs of characters whose stories are too momentous to remain untold.
Yet realism is only the ground floor of a two-story structure. Above the quotidian level of the boardinghouse, where the troubled Herald Loomis (a profoundly moving John Douglas Thompson) has arrived with his daughter (the adorable Skye Barrett) in search of his wife, is another realm full of expressionistic occurrences and symbolic meaning.
The visible world, as always with Wilson, is haunted by the invisible world. And the fluidity between these domains — one conscious, the other unconscious, one rooted in story, the other in song, one obsessed with the here and now, the other fixated on memory — is breathtakingly worked out. Were I to choose a favorite work in Wilson's magisterial 10-play cycle, "Joe Turner's Come and Gone" would likely be the pick, the masterpiece of masterpieces.
Rashad, a Tony-winning actress still best known for playing Bill Cosby's TV wife, keeps the staging simple and actor-focused. Having had success on Broadway performing in Wilson's "Gem of the Ocean," a play she subsequently directed at Seattle Repertory Theatre, Rashad knows that what matters most is emotional clarity, not scenic flourishes.
This production may be too grounded to achieve the sublimity of Bartlett Sher's 2009 Broadway revival, but its cathartic force is just as overwhelming. Credit that to the way Rashad's ensemble embodies the essential paradox of Wilson's characters: Rooted in everyday turmoil and trivialities, they are nonetheless aware of being part of something greater, an ineradicable heritage, moral progress, a better future.
Loomis is still waking from the historical nightmare that didn't end with the passing of the 13th Amendment. For seven years, between 1901 and 1908, he was illegally held captive by the bounty hunter Joe Turner. His old life didn't survive his absence. He recovered his daughter, but he's still looking for his wife (Erica Tazel), who fled somewhere up North.
"I just wanna see her face so I can get me a starting place in the world," he says. "The world got to start somewhere."
Loomis, a former deacon whose faith has been shattered, is speaking to Bynum (Glynn Turman), a fellow boarder known as a "conjure man" because of his clairvoyant insight and practice of primitive rituals. Bynum can see at a glance that Loomis has become a man spiritually adrift, enraged by the injustice of what was done to him, broken by the trauma of racism.
"Now, I can look at you, Mr. Loomis, and see you a man who done forgot his song," he tells him. "Forgot how to sing it. A fellow forget that and he forget who he is. Forget how he's supposed to mark down life."
"Joe Turner's Come and Gone," which had its Broadway premiere in 1988, dramatizes the journey of a man slowly, painfully rediscovering his song as life hectically swirls about him. It's a distinctly African American story, but its psychological resonance is universal. To be moved by Loomis' struggle requires only membership in the human race.
The boardinghouse (crisply brought into focus by scenic designer John Iacovelli) becomes a microcosm of the African American experience. Owned and operated by the busybody entrepreneur Seth Holly (a slyly comic Keith David) and his generous-hearted wife, Bertha (a wonderfully buoyant Lillias White), it contains a collection of vibrant characters all searching for their path in an age of seismic transition.
The residents include a guitar-strumming country boy still acclimating to city life (Gabriel Brown), a kind and sensitive woman whose man has deserted her (January LaVoy) and a more cynical gal who has no interest in relinquishing the keys to her kingdom (Vivian Nixon). Regularly passing through is a creepy white peddler (sharply portrayed by Raynor Scheine) whose sideline is finding missing people, a service in this chaotically migratory era that's as much in demand as Bynum's specialty of binding souls.
Rashad threads these performances into an ensemble composition that provides a rich human backdrop for Loomis' anguished reckoning with his past. Guided by Bynum, he confronts the memory of his brutalized ancestors, fitting his own story into this greater narrative and discovering whether a toppled man can find the communal strength to rise again on his own legs.
'Joe Turner's Come and Gone'
Where: Mark Taper Forum, Los Angeles Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. (Call for exceptions.) Ends June 9.
Tickets: $20 to $70
Contact: (213) 628-2772 or http://www.centertheatregroup.org/joeturner
Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes
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