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BWW Review: JOE TURNER'S COME AND GONE Brilliantly Ends August Wilson's 'Century Cycle' at American Stage


"Now, I can look at you, Mr. Loomis, and see you a man who done forgot his song. Forgot how to sing it. A fellow forget that and he forget who he is...See, Mr. Loomis, when a man forgets his song he goes off in search of it...till he find out he's got it with him all the time." -- from JOE TURNER'S COME AND GONE

And soon it will be over. That's right, come February 26th, the last August Wilson play from the "Century Cycle" performed at American Stage will see its final standing ovation. I know many tears are shed over this, a form of artistic mourning. I know I am not alone when I ask, "Can't they do it again for another ten years?" Last season, after seeing Jitney, I suggested that American Stage maybe can go back to the "Century Cycle" starting in 2018, but this time do them in order of decade, starting with Gem of the Ocean (set in the first decade of the 1900's) and ending with Radio Golf (set in the 1990's). But that's probably not going to happen. Being one of twelve worldwide theatres to accomplish the entire run of "Century Cycle" plays, American Stage should now take a rightful bow.

And you, the audience, owe it to yourself to see the cycle close--with JOE TURNER'S COME AND GONE.

Set in 1911 at Seth Holly's Pittsburgh boardinghouse, JOE TURNER'S COME AND GONE primarily deals with the African-American search for identity, lost heritage and redemption. It tackles issues that are spiritual and realistic, religious and historic. As often been noted, not since Tennessee Williams had a playwright of this caliber been able to capture dialogue that is beautifully poetic and natural at once. So it's always a treat to see that Wilson's gorgeous writing is given a top-tiered production at American Stage. Yes, there are minor quibbles, and one major question, but the show is such an event, that such things should be mentioned but not turned into deal breakers. Please push them aside because this is one drop-everything-and-don't-miss-it show.

As Seth, an entrepreneurial black man born free in America, Kim Sullivan, a veteran of every Wilson play in the Cycle, has never been better. This is a master acting class of a performance, sheer confidence on display, with plenty of humor and precise timing. He never misses a beat, nor does he make a false move. Although not tall in stature, Sullivan is a towering figure onstage. His best moments are actually his quiet ones, where he raptly listens. Few actors listen onstage better than he does. He knows when to hold the spotlight, and even better, he knows when to let others have it--as he listens, always wrapped in the moment.

As the conjurer, Bynum Walker, actor Mujahid Abdul-Rashid has been on a roller coaster ride these past two weeks, when one actor left the show and he took over the part. The first weekend he was still on script, but the second weekend, when I saw the show, he was off-book and sensational. So strong in Jitney last year, Abdul-Rashid almost matches that excellence here. In some ways, he got better as JOE TURNER'S COME AND GONE went on. And he and Sullivan make great counter points--the spiritual versus the grounded, high ideals versus a man's everyday grind for money.

I find myself torn about Calvin M. Thompson's portrayal of Herold Loomis. He's dressed head to toe in black, like a Grim Reaper without his scythe. It's the same type of costume worn by Julian Beck in Poltergeist II. And Thompson's performance may be more suited for the Poltergeist franchise than for August Wilson's "Century Cycle." He is certainly chilling and riveting, owning the stage whenever he enters. But at times his intensity seems too forced, not integrated or motivated. It's intensity for intensity's sake. I know he's supposed to be a man who is still figuratively chained, bottled up as his words seep out of his mouth. He's still in his own prison as he searches for his lost identity. But Thompson speaks in a very theatrical manner, demonically spitting out his words all the time, over-pronouncing each and every syllable way too much. Sometimes he sounds like he's blaring his way through tongue-twister exercises.

Still, Thompson is the key individual in one of my favorite scenes in recent memory and more than redeems himself at the end of Act 1. He goes through an exorcism of sorts, and he writhes on the ground, like he's wrestling with the devil. It's harrowing. The audience sits breathless as Thompson goes through convulsions, religious seizures, throwing himself about the room. It's quite an act, beautifully portrayed by the actor, and leaves the audience dazed as they head for the bathroom line at intermission. It's a physical tour de force, and I know of very few actors who could carry it off as successfully as Thompson. So I am still up in the air about him, a man whose intensity knows no bounds. But we would like to see more than just intensity and maniacal facial expressions onstage.

At first I didn't recognize Richard Watson as the white peddler, Rutherford Selig. I saw Watson as Sherlock Holmes over a decade ago, and you would never know that Selig is the same actor (it's called versatility). Satchel Andre is quite ingratiating as Jeremy, a boarding house tenant, and Fanni Green is a joy to watch as Bertha, Seth's wife. Biana Rivera-Irions is delightful as Loomis' daughter, and Tyrese Pope, from Gibbs High School, has a few standout moments as Reuben. Jemier Jenkins as Molly and Cindy de la Cruz as Mattie do quite well, but I felt that Alexandria Crawford, although passable as Martha, didn't hit the powerful highs that her relatively brief role requires (Angela Bassett played the part on Broadway).

As he proved in last year's Jitney, director L. Peter Callender understands August Wilson like no other. He is an artist who knows how to stage a scene to maximum effect (as in the end of Act 1). I have never seen a bad or even lukewarm set by Scott Cooper; his set for JOE TURNER'S COME AND GONE, aided by Joseph Oshry's lighting, is functional and captures the spirit of the times. Frank Chavez's costumes are spot on; I particularly like the worn, faded edges of Loomis' black robe. The music between scenes was appropriate, but there were what seemed like some odd sound glitches the night I saw the show.

As I left the theatre, I saw so many men and women wiping tears from their eyes. They were obviously crying from the power of JOE TURNER'S COME AND GONE, but perhaps they were also tearing up because thus endeth the "Century Cycle" at American Stage. The show has been so popular that the company had to extend the production from its original closing date (February 19th) to a new one (February 26th). So make sure to be a part of this monumental, historic achievement that celebrates what it means to be alive in this flawed, but great nation. Don't be left out the conversation that August Wilson started so many years ago. Because soon, way too soon, it will be over.

For tickets, please call (727) 823-PLAY (7529).

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