Here and Now : Browne Confronts Pain, Passion in ‘Joe Turner’s Come and Gone’


It’s 3:30 in the afternoon, but it feels like the middle of the night to Roscoe Lee Browne.

His body clock is used to going to work at 8 p.m., taking to the stage as the elderly soothsayer Bynum in August Wilson’s “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” (at the Los Angeles Theatre Center through June 18).

But now, because he’s performing for local schoolchildren at special noontime performances, he’s on double duty, turning in back-to-back performances of the almost 3 1/2-hour play.


What makes it a lot more bearable is that this is a play Browne adores. And his fondness for young audiences goes way back.

“You can speak about courtesy if you must,” he said of the teen-age theatergoers. “Then leave them alone. Let them bring whatever it is they have to enjoy it. I’ve had that experience with the New York Shakespeare Festival. Kids came to the park to disrupt (the play), but they ended up staying--and literally falling in love with theater.” He clutches his chest, mimicking the impassioned plea of a young audience member: “ ‘Don’t do it Romeo. She ain’t dead! ‘ The point is, at the end of the play, they’re in it.”

“Joe Turner,” he noted, is just as affecting--and just as relevant. The story, which is set in a Pittsburgh boardinghouse circa 1911, focuses on a week in the lives of the house’s proprietors and boarders--particularly Herald Loomis, a volatile and foreboding figure who’s lost seven years of his life after being shanghaied by the infamous Joe Turner and sold into indentured servitude. Roscoe’s Bynum is the play’s elder statesman, a profoundly calming influence on all the youthful pain and passion.

“Bynum does have in his persona some of the magic and mystery of the play,” said Browne in his deep, richly cultivated voice. “All the characters do, of course, but he speaks it. It is an astonishing work, with the most broad vistas: from the very clear specificity of these people in this particular time and place--to the deep, deep rivers of the human soul. Shakespeare did the same. So did O’Neill. Yes, this is very much about the black experience. But a great poet will always be very clear in his imagery: to let your mind go, let it take off.”

Within the play’s potential for darkness (Browne pointed out that his character likely would have been born into slavery) the actor feels no personal pain in playing the role. “Whether one knows it or not, one does have race memories,” he said. “If the character has to experience pain, (those memories) make the pain easily available. You don’t have to go and do an ‘as if’; whatever that is, you know it. But for me, it doesn’t become painful to do the play. There’s a purgation.”

Though the actor has worked often and successfully in television (including Saunders on “Soap,” Rosemont on “Falcon Crest” and an Emmy-winning stint on “The Cosby Show”), he admitted that it doesn’t always offer such sweeping emotional challenges.

“Sometimes it’s authentic crap,” he said. “There are some things you just cannot do. I turn down many, many roles.”


As for hit-you-over-the-head issue pieces (black or otherwise), “I don’t like editorials for actors to act,” he stated. “If it’s really well written you come to it from the specificity of the experience itself.”

Once in, he likes to lose himself.

Browne spoke proudly of the time Anthony Zerbe--with whom he’d toured the country in “Behind the Broken Words”--came to see him as Makak in “Dream on Monkey Mountain” (Taper, 1970). “He said to his wife, ‘Isn’t that old guy great? I can’t wait for Roscoe to come out.’ He did not know me. I wasn’t wearing any makeup, I had a little bit of a beard, a raggedy hat. But Makak did not walk like Roscoe, sound like Roscoe. There was not one bit of Roscoe in Makak. I did not impose a voice on him; it just happened viscerally.”

Browne came to acting relatively late in life. A New Jersey native, he was teaching beginning French and English 101 at a small college in Pennsylvania when he twice became a national track champion (running for the New York Pioneer Club). On the basis of that celebrity, he was hired as national sales representative for the Schenley Corp. It wasn’t till 1956, during dinner with three women friends that he announced, “Tomorrow I will be an actor.”

The next day Browne auditioned for the brand-new New York Shakespeare Festival--and was cast. The jobs quickly followed. “I remember when I chose acting, I thought, ‘This is it--for the time being.’ I didn’t think I was finished yet. I still don’t. I keep thinking about what I should be doing (next). I might be a writer.”

In the meantime, he couldn’t be happier doing this play.

“Wonderful things have been said about James Craven’s (Loomis) and my performance,” he said bluntly. “But the Hollys--Seth and Bertha (played by Steven Anthony Jones and Delores Mitchell): they make a place for us to live in. I’ve been a tenant in many plays where the lady in the kitchen doesn’t know that kitchen any better than the lady sitting in the audience. But those two astonish me with what they do. They create a place in which the rest of us can thrive. They’re like loving parents.”