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Review - Joe Turner's Come And Gone: Shine It On

Forgive me if it has become too old a cliché, and perhaps even an unintentional racial stereotype, to point out the enrapturing musicality of language the late August Wilson displayed in his landmark decade-by-decade cycle of plays about African-American experiences in the 20th Century. That trait is especially evident in pieces set in the earlier decades (i.e. Gem of the Ocean, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom) and seems to decrease as the years go on, demonstrating an assimilation into the established (Eurocentric) culture of the country.

With that assimilation comes the loss of a collective identity and that's what thrusts Joe Turner's Comes And Gone, now receiving a jaunty revival via director Bartlett Sher, who has his exceptional company of actors and designers interpreting the text like a light jazz improvisation. Set in 1911 in Pittsburgh's Hill District (as 90% of Wilson's cycle plays are) his 1984 drama depicts a time when great numbers of former slaves and their children were migrating to industrialized northern cities, competing with white laborers for blue-collar jobs. And while, at least on paper, they were technically free American citizens, the country they inhabited was an ocean away from the land that created and nurtured the culture of their ancestors. Thin on plot but heavy on theme, Joe Turner... shows snippets from a time when the value of ancient ways must be balanced against the reality of establishing new directions.

The action takes place in and around the boarding home owned by Seth and Bertha Holly (Ernie Hudson and LaTanya Richardson), a grounded laborer and his nurturing, domestic wife taking care of the transients living among them in a changing community. Michael Yeargan's wall-less set emphasizes the lack of permanence ahead with a staircase, window frames, a doorway and furnishings that are choreographed on and off, depending on their need. Light, glittery showers can occasionally be spotted falling from the dark backdrop depicting the surrounding neighborhood.

Familiar faces around the breakfast table include the elderly Bynum (a warm and wondrously sage Roger Robinson), a former slave who practices ancient rituals to "fix things" and will tell anyone who'll listen about the day he encountered a "shiny man" who helped him discover the song that helps him bind people together. There's also the slick, young Jeremy (Andre Holland turning on lady-killing charm) a laborer who would rather make a living out of playing the guitar. Jeremy takes an immediate liking to Mattie (Marsha Stephanie Blake), a heartbroken woman seeking help from Bynum because her man has left her, but his attentions also turn to the sexually vibrant Molly (Aunjanue Ellis), who has traveled many roads herself.

Those familiar with the story behind the old song from which the play gets its title will understand the circumstances that have separated Herald Loomis (a worn and foggy-voiced Chad L. Coleman) from his wife for over a decade. Having spent the last four years searching for her with his young daughter Zonia (Amari Rose Leigh) in tow, Herald employs the people-finding services of a white peddler named Selig (Arliss Howard), whose ancestors were among the first to capture Africans for slavery.

Though the conflict between Herald's forward journey and Bynum's insistence that he comes to terms with his (and his people's) past fuels the play, the humor, romance and sense of an improvised community shaped by the home's hosts and temporary residents makes it bounce with varying tones. Exemplary design work by Catherine Zuber (costumes), Brian MacDevitt (lights) and Leon Rothenberg & Scott Lehrer (sound) surround the rugged realism of everyday life with an intangible embrace of spirituality.

Photos by T. Charles Erickson: Top: Roger Robinson and Marsha Stephanie Blake; Bottom: Chad L. Coleman, Roger Robinson and Company

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From This Author Kristin Salaky