Review: JOE TURNER'S COME AND GONE at Goodman Theatre

The second play in August Wilson's Century Cycle has been extended through May 19.

By: Apr. 25, 2024
Review: JOE TURNER'S COME AND GONE at Goodman Theatre
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When August Wilson’s JOE TURNER’S COME AND GONE premiered on Broadway in 1988, the United States prison population had doubled from where it was at the start of the Reagan administration. This increase in incarceration disproportionately impacted Black communities, especially Black men, who were six times as likely to be imprisoned as white men. Attorney and civil rights activist Michelle Alexander has convincingly argued that this ongoing period of “mass incarceration… is the most damaging manifestation of the backlash against the Civil Rights Movement,” going so far as to refer to this phenomenon as “the New Jim Crow.” So it’s no wonder that Wilson set his play about the literal and figurative bonds that prevented Black men from achieving self-sufficiency during the Jim Crow era, just as millions of African Americans began migrating from the South to the North in search of greater economic and cultural freedoms. And it’s not a stretch to say that Wilson’s work continues to speak to our current moment (Black Americans are still five times as likely to be imprisoned as white Americans).

Now, under the meticulous direction of Chuck Smith, the Goodman’s newest revival of JOE TURNER’S COME AND GONE emphasizes the play’s continued relevance through masterful performances that find cause for celebration and laughter even in the face of oppression. The production has already been extended through May 19 due to popular demand.

Set in 1911 amidst the start of the Great Migration and the rapid industrialization of Pittsburgh, JOE TURNER recounts several weeks at a respectable boardinghouse run by Seth Holly (Dexter Zollicoffer) and his wife Bertha (TayLar). The laughter and conversation flow freely between the Hollys and their boarders: the formerly enslaved “conjure” man Bynum (Tim Rhoze) and an itinerant guitar player named Jeremy (Anthony Fleming III). But the relative peace of the house is thrown into uncertainty with the arrival of Herald Loomis (A.C. Smith), a mysterious stranger from the South searching for his long-lost wife and a clearer sense of purpose.

Chuck Smith already has a reputation for being one of the foremost interpreters of Wilson’s works, and JOE TURNER once again proves that this reputation is both well-earned and firmly secured. Every line, word, and beat has been nurtured to its fullest potential, honoring Wilson’s naturalistic style while drawing attention to its profound lyricism. Under Smith’s direction, JOE TURNER becomes a slice of life in which every character becomes both poet and prophet, at once of this world and beyond it. This skill gets its clearest expression in the juba dance performed by the house’s residents that ends the first act. Juba is a style of dance with roots in central Africa in which the dancers create rhythmic patterns together using their bodies and household objects while individuals take turns breaking out into spontaneous choreography, in this case, exuberantly developed and directed by Cristin Carole. Wilson’s script dictates that the juba be danced “as African as possible,” and Carole and Smith have crafted a scene that is at once true to 1910s African American life while hearkening back to—or toward—a decolonial period free from the pressures and perils of white America. The moment is celebratory yet bittersweet; as free as the characters may feel in this moment, the pillars of a nearby factory loom heavily in the distance (Linda Buchanan’s evocative set creates a pocket of warmth framed by chilly steel surroundings).

Of course, Smith’s vision benefits greatly from the all-Chicago cast that he’s assembled; most of these performers are deeply familiar with Wilson’s work and have played some of his greatest roles in recent years. Zollicoffer and TayLar begin each scene with a playful optimism that energizes the action to follow. Almost all of TayLar’s lines barely conceal the laughter underneath, underscoring Bertha’s belief that good humor is the only thing that can carry anyone through these troubling times. Zollicoffer’s Seth takes himself more seriously, but the actor clearly has fun while making the role his own. At various points, he takes a slight pause in the middle of a line or phrase before barreling straight through to his point or punchline. It’s an amusing verbal tic that speaks to Seth’s struggle to maintain his sense of respectability in the face of daily injustices.

This growing unease finds its worthy foil in Fleming’s Jeremy, a man whose self-confidence is unassailable if occasionally misplaced. Fleming gives the most malleable and physical performance, hunched over the breakfast table with gruffness after a long day at work in one moment before effortlessly slinking up to a freshly arrived young woman looking for a room. As problematic as his character’s antics may be, Fleming delivers each line as though he’s savoring honey, leaving audiences susceptible to his many charms even while other characters remain skeptical.

Rounding out the boardinghouse’s primary residents, Rhoze commands the stage with a booming gravitas that is consistently impressive and frequently awe-inspiring. Bynum is arguably the only character in the play who seems certain of his place in the world, a realization that has no doubt been hard won after a life that spans the end of slavery to the rise of Jim Crow. He makes his living as a “conjure” man, a neighborhood mystic who combines elements of Christianity and African spirituality to “bind” people back together who have lost one another. Rather than treating this unfamiliar culture as a joke or quirk, Rhoze lets Bynum’s history inform every aspect of his performance, even in the slightest of gestures. A wave of a walking stick carries a blessing or a curse depending on the rise of an eyebrow or the twitch of a lip; his wooden expression is betrayed by the soft reassurances he whispers to Loomis’s daughter, Zonia (played to the point of heartbreak by Kylah Renee Jones). Bynum may not be the hero of Wilson’s script, but he certainly elicits the most cheers by the end of the night.

Of all the performers, A.C. Smith is undoubtedly the most experienced at playing Wilson’s struggling but thriving men. By my count, he has now been in no fewer than six plays from Wilson’s  Century Cycle. So it is fitting that he now tackles the playwright’s most inscrutable hero. By his own description, Herald has been reduced to an animalistic state following years of violence suffered down in Tennessee. He “sniffs” after his wife like a bloodhound and howls like a wolf as he’s haunted by apocalyptic nightmares. And Smith conveys the variances of this pain with deft skill, his gravelly voice sliding into a desperate whine even as he snaps at those around him. But Loomis’s tenderness never shines through as palpably as Wilson’s script suggests. Smith shares a touching moment with fellow resident Mattie Campbell (a refreshingly caring Nambi E. Kelley) and Zonia near the play’s conclusion, but Loomis is otherwise a character fascinating to watch yet difficult to root for. His scenes at the end of each act also feel like the only clumsy steps in a play that otherwise glides smoothly from one movement to the next. These moments are played at the very edge of the stage, neglecting to give Smith both literal and figurative room to breathe. Seeing him stalk the boards like a tiger pacing in a cage would be much more powerful if one could be sure the movements were intentional.

It’s worth noting that JOE TURNER was reportedly Wilson’s favorite of all his plays, and it’s evident that Chuck Smith and his dedicated cast have taken great care in bringing this treasured work to life once more for all of Chicago to enjoy. Perhaps the best metaphor to describe this production is its final tableau: a community looking on in awe as they witness a long-awaited act of reconciliation and a much-needed promise of better times to come.

Photo Credit: Liz Lauren


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