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'Joe Turner' Has Come Again to CENTERSTAGE

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◊◊◊ out of five.  2 hours, 25 minutes, including intermission.  Mild adult language and situations.  Violent images, including use of a weapon. 

It is frustrating, both as an avid theater fan and critic, to see a play where all of the pieces are top quality, but the result is rather ho-hum.  Such is the general reaction I had to CENTERSTAGE's revival of August Wilson's Joe Turner's Come and Gone, which opened last night.  Nearly all of the performances are superb, the direction occasionally exciting, and even some of the script is excellent.  But really, one has to wonder why Wilson himself has called this one his favorite of all of his works.  Aside from one storyline, the rest of the play is a mishmash of ideas thrown out there for us to ponder, and then the ideas are either completely ignored or hurriedly squeezed into the play's closing moments. "Fragmented" is the word most commonly found in my research on this play, but it is always used in reference to the nature of post-slavery African-Americans wandering aimlessly toward an unseen and unknown place, disconnected from their ancestry and their modern lives.  "Fragmented" is the word I'd use to describe this play which feels more like a catch-all for several very relevant themes, none of which are satisfactorily addressed. 

I have to wonder if time will tell if Mr. Wilson's achievement, still a great one by any measure, will ever be completely and honestly recognized as uneven, or will it continue on, flaws and all, to be bolstered by critical and sociological huzzahs from masses longing for a theatrical void to be filled.  As always, Wilson's images are astute in their observation, thought-provoking in their candor, and poetic in their superb command of the language.  I suspect several of the lengthy speeches handed out to nearly every character in act two are included in any number of "Monologues for Actors" volumes currently in circulation.  Their universality and honest emotion are worth study, to be sure, but, alas, this is a play, performed live, unable to be rewound and fully contemplated.  Thus, I also have to wonder if the appeal of this play isn't really more satisfying on the page rather than on the stage.   

Directed by Derrick Sanders, a man whose resume shows that he is indeed a Wilson scholar, the play is tightly directed and highly theatrical.  He shows us stylized scene changes, and uses lights (designed by Thom Weaver) and sound (designed/composed by Ray Nardell) to heighten dramatic tension and to transport us to far off Africa so that we might be more in touch with the spirituality of that continent that comes into play a few times during the evening.  One particularly vivid scene joyously has the company doing a Juba - a dance/chant/percussion piece of jubilation - that celebrates the characters' deeply rooted history (choreographed by Kibibi Ajanku).  Completing the technical team is Neil Patel, who has designed a functional if somewhat sterile sitting room/kitchen of a 1911 boarding house.  More interesting is the "outside" - a hilly terrain covered with trees, grass and a realistic garden.  Christine Pascual's costumes are somewhat less effective.  Though time period appropriate, they are so clean and perfectly ironed that they resemble a museum tableau rather than lived in clothing by lower to middle class Americans near the turn of last century. 

The main plot line belongs to Herald Loomis, a victim of the infamous Joe Turner, a plantation owner who illegally held African-Americans hostage while forcing them to do slave labor.  Loomis has come to 1911 Pittsburgh in search of his estranged wife, daughter Zonia in tow.  He comes to the boarding house of Seth and Bertha Holly and takes up residence while he continues the search.  The rest of the play is inhabited by overtly symbolic types, each representing a different segment of the population and/or global idea.  Seth, for example, wants more - to open his own business.  But he can't because he can't secure a loan without putting the house up as collateral.  Instead, he is frustrated at his stagnant position, having to find contentment doing piece work which he sells to the white traveling salesman, Rutherford Selig.  Selig, in turn, searches for the "lost" for a dollar.  A charismatic man fully in touch with his tribal roots and claiming to have powers to "bind" people together through his "song" is Bynum Walker.  Then there is Jeremy Furlow, road worker, and smooth ladies' man, who is after not one, but two of the ladies who reside there - Mattie Campbell, herself in search of  a lost love, but instantly smitten with Jeremy, and Molly Cunningham, a hoity-toity "dame" who refers to herself by name. Martha Pentecost, religious (naturally, just look at her name) woman and friends with the Hollys, makes a startling revelation about herself.  Finally, there are the children, Zonia Loomis, Herald's daughter and her playmate Reuben Mercer, who claims to be able to see ghosts.

Separately, these are very interesting characters, each with a play's worth of story a piece, though none fully realized.  To exacerbate the problem, each cast member, save the children, is so dynamic and talented, that they make you want more, which really only adds to the disappointment that you never will be satisfied.  Both Miah Marie Patterson (as Zonia) and Neiman A. Outen (as Reuben) look their parts well enough - she has soulful, tired eyes, he has the air of mischief about him.  But both are bland in their delivery and suffer from a lack of volume, which combine to make their "first kiss" scene rather lackluster and cold.  Fortunately, this is an example of a whole scene stuck in to make some sort of point, but goes nowhere.  (The truth is the play could easily be done without either role.  Reign Edwards and Marquis D. Moody alternate in these roles.) 

Michael Medeiros, as Selig, offers a refreshing take on a "white" role in an "afro-centric" play.  He is more a part of the family, having been where they are and respecting them genuinely.  It is nice to see that Wilson didn't resort to the blatant racist card like so many others do.  Rob Riley, as the suave Jeremy Furlow, is a man of dashing looks and powerful masculinity, and he is all smooth charm - the kind of guy you might roll your eyes at, but be amused by if you are a lady, and the kind of guy another guy would tease, and then use one of his lines for his own conquest. 

Roslyn Ruff, as Mattie, plays the nuances of the shy, quiet girl very well, making depth where there really isn't any.  I still don't see why this character exists, other than as a contrast to the more "worldly" charms of "Molly", played with a delicious snootiness by Bakesta King.  She glides and sashays her way around the room, charming the men like a snake, but making it clear that she is a "modern woman" who demands the finest things, people and station in life.  Perhaps she represents unfulfilled dreams, for despite her airs and decrees, she is still, after all, the resident of a boarding house.  Both women do fine work with not much support from the script, and both make a positive impression. 

CedRic Young, as the spiritually connected elder Bynum, gives a rich deeply felt performance.  His matter-of-factness about such things as a bloodletting ceremony and the idea that each of us has a "song" which guides our lives (think destiny, purpose, etc.), make the character interesting and somewhat mystic.  Mr. Young is a powerful force in the final scene of act one as Bynum connects on a much higher level with the anguished Harold Loomis. 

Both James A. Williams (terrific in last year's Radio Golf) and Myra Lucretia Taylor (Broadway's revival of Nine) do excellent work as owners of the boarding house.  They exude a comfortable, if argumentative, married vibe - she is all warmth; he is all business.  They do fine work, despite not much to work with. Their story line feels more kitchen sink dramedy than part of the tapestry, with Ms. Taylor relegated to cooking, doing dishes and wrestling with an uncooperative stove while she dishes out bits of wisdom and motherly affection.  Mr. Williams has perhaps the very least to work with, as his role is boldly repetitive and can be summed up thusly: Seth Holly demands his rent on time and good behavior or you are out on your ear; Seth Holly wants more but can't afford to risk what he already has; and Seth Holly doesn't take kindly to the rituals of Bynum - they are too "African" for his liking.  That kind of part is hard to make interesting, but he does just that. 

Given that she only appears in the final scenes, it is extra wonderful to say that Donnetta Lavinia Grays is a thrilling presence as Martha, Bible toting fiery woman.  Ms. Grays takes the stage by storm - you are instantly drawn to her presence.  And her last minute climactic scene with Javon Johnson (as Herald Loomis) provides one of the most exciting 10 minutes of theater I've experiences in some time.  Mr. Johnson, however, is the main reason to see this production.  His performance in Joe Turner is riveting from start to finish, as he stalks angrily around the set like a caged hungry lion.  His part in the last scene is quite simply scary, and ultimately very powerful.  A similar final scene of act one, has Mr. Johnson throwing himself to the floor in a panicked, frightening one man exorcism of deeply rooted demons.  Both moments are, I think, what Wilson was trying to do with the whole play. 

As powerful as those act closing scenes are, and as superbly acted and directed as they are, they only serve to point up the shortcomings of the rest of the script.  Still, August Wilson's works are likely to become the 20th century equivalent of the Shakespeare canon.  And like Wilson, sometimes the Bard's ideas were better than the plays in which they were voiced.

PHOTOS courtesy of CENTERSTAGE: TOP to BOTTOM: Reign Edwards and Javon Johnson; Javon Johnson and James A. Williams; Rob Riley and CedRic Young; Roslyn Ruff and Myra Lucretia Taylor; The Company (Javon Johnson, center).


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From This Author James Howard

James was first bitten by the theatre bug at the tender young age of 11, when, at the last minute, he was called upon to (read more...)