Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Joe Turner's Come and Gone
Wilson's plays are embodied with intriguing characters and poetic language that speak to the trials and tribulations that African Americans faced throughout the 20th century. In Joe Turner's Come and Gone, the setting is the Pittsburgh boardinghouse owned by Seth Holly and his wife Bertha. This is but one stop on the long journey for the transitory inhabits who are seeking better lives for themselves, with many of the residents the sons and daughters of slaves who are haunted by their pasts and uncertain of their futures. The title comes from an actual person who was the brother of the governor of Tennessee who would illegally kidnap and falsely arrest Black men and force them to serve on his chain gang.
The latest individual to rent a room from the Hollys is the mysterious Herald Loomis, who has arrived with his young daughter and tells Seth and Bertha that he is looking for his wife whom he last saw nine years before. When another resident of the home, the mystical Bynum Walker, keeps singing a blues song about Joe Turner, Loomis tells him to stop singing it. Bynum replies that we all need to find our own song and that Joe needs to find his in order for his life to start again.
Much has been written about the plays in Wilson's play cycle and how he uses language, music, and sometimes spiritual elements to probe, frame, and document the joys and sorrows of his characters and to depict the weight and forces of history that they must face during the specific decade in which each play is set. There is a lot of imagery that Wilson bakes into his dialogue; here, the chilling underwater bone graveyard of slaves that haunts Loomis is especially visual and vibrant, but there are also moments of pure joy, as when the entire boarding house erupts into a "Juba" dance. Each play is unique and stands alone, but there are a few characters and locations that are mentioned in more than one of the plays. You do not need to have seen or have knowledge of any of the other plays in the cycle to fully understand and enjoy this one.
Director Mark Clayton Southers lives in Pittsburgh's Hill District, where nine of the ten plays in Wilson's cycle are set and is the founder and artistic director of Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company, which completed the play cycle in 2016. Southers has directed all ten of the Wilson plays, so he has a vast knowledge of Wilson's work, this play, and what is required to make a production of it successful, and here, with an exceptional cast, it soars.
As Herald Loomis, Roosevelt Watts, Jr. is appropriately intense, brooding, wild eyed, and mean looking. Mike Traylor is excellent, without one false move, as the gentle mystic Bynum Walker. Calvin Worthen and Rico Burton are wonderful as Seth and Bertha. Rapheal Hamilton embodies Jeremy Follow, the young musician who runs into trouble at work, with an abundance of life. Joe Kearns is great as Rutherford Selig, the only white character in the play, a "people-finder" whose father used to ferry slaves to the U.S. but now makes money off finding and reconnecting former slaves with their families.
Dzifa Kwawu is excellent as the independent, strong, and religious Martha Pentecost. As Mattie Campbell, the woman who comes to Bynum for help to find her man that ran away but instead finds a new life for herself, Amanishakhete Anacaona is appropriately shy and sweet. Shonda Royall shines as the feisty and matter of fact Molly, the woman who doesn't need a man or anyone in her life. Also, in smaller parts, Imani Jones and Jaelyn Walker play the Loomis daughter and a young boy next door, respectively.
The production elements are fantastic, with rich period details in Sarah Harris' set and Imani Jackson's costumes. Stacey Walston's lighting is gorgeous and perfectly draws focus to the appropriate section of the set as the scenes play out.
At times exuberant and at other times chilling, The Black Theatre Troupe's production of Joe Turner's Come and Gone is a strong, moving, and extremely rewarding production of this classic August Wilson play.
Joe Turner's Come and Gone runs through February 19, 2023, at The Black Theatre Troupe , Helen K. Mason Performing Arts Center, 1333 East Washington Street, Phoenix AZ. For tickets and information, please visit www.blacktheatretroupe.org or call 602-258-8129
Directed: Mark Clayton Southers