Joe Turner's Come and Gone: Theater Review

Joe Turner Come and Gone - H 2013
Craig Schwartz

Joe Turner Come and Gone - H 2013

A pitch-perfect realization of perhaps the late August Wilson’s most ambitious and richly accomplished work. Don’t wait: this is essential theater. 

Phylicia Rashad directs one of the most heralded works from August Wilson's "Century Cycle" at the Mark Taper Forum in downtown L.A.

The Century Cycle of ten August Wilson plays, each set in a different decade of the 20th century, mostly in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, unquestionably dominates the literary landscape of the last 30 years of American theater. In this capstone achievement for the classical dramatic form in our country in our time, Wilson's intention is to portray 100 years of the black experience refracted through the progress of history, the past always heavily weighted on the present.

In Phylicia Rashad's exemplary production of the 1986 Joe Turner’s Come and Gone at the Mark Taper Forum, Wilson conveys the legacy of the genocidal Middle Passage, of centuries of slavery, of enforced servitude into the 20th century -- as well as African religious and musical roots, spiritual seeking, the relations of the sexes and the entrepreneurial drive. In short, a textured portrait of society in flux under stress over an enduring haul.

The density of Wilson’s vision can suggest a certain messiness, but he actually presents precisely rendered portraits which are obviously the result of innumerable sketches and refinement. This meticulousness comes across palpably in every moment of this staging, which eschews indulgence at every opportunity, intensively bearing down on the nuances and details that elucidate the playwright’s diverse themes. It’s bracingly unfussy and refreshingly selfless, relentlessly dedicated to the most complex realization of the tapestry by spinning out the most delicate and colorful of threads.

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Above all, the show is blessed with impeccable casting that allows the characterizations, as histrionic as they can become, to appear effortlessly believable. These actors not only display seemingly limitless range, they explore the outer reaches of that range with apparent ease. Rashad trusts the rhetoric of the speech enough to push the pace of the readings, so the innate lyricism emerges without the freight of intention.

This is a complicated story of searches and desertions, with a lot of characters onstage and off, yet its complexities are never obscure -- allusively mysterious perhaps, with suggestions of meanings always tantalizingly stretching the audience’s imagination. Rashad insures that amidst these rewarding challenges, the sense of connection and command is never lost, even momentarily, in no small part because she imparts an intuitive understanding of the implicit comedy despite the enormity of the tragedy.

This play stands for hope, hard-won, eked out on the margins, and ever ambiguous, but it bespeaks an optimism grounded in realistic, even brutal, acknowledgement of how difficult it can be to “remember how to sing one’s song.”

All the action takes place in the ground floor of the boarding house of Seth and Bertha Holly (Keith David and Lillas White). David is an ubiquitous actor for good reason, his stentorian voice a fleet and flexible instrument, and he and White elicit more outright laughter than one might associate with a Wilson play.

John Douglas Thompson makes a more vulnerable and less menacing Herald Loomis than others before him, the man shanghaied off the road for seven years of servitude on the plantation of Joe Turner and now unable to free himself until he and his 10-year-old daughter Zonia (Skye Barrett) find his missing wife.

And then there is the ineffable beauty of Glynn Turman onstage, as the “binding” practitioner and oracular shaman Bynum Walker. It’s a role that can so easily get lost in its hoodoo shenanigans, but Turman inhales the part so deeply, with such quiet brio, that one can take the same loving measure of merely watching him breathe, even in the large Taper house, that one does from a sleeping baby.

The last Los Angeles mounting of Joe Turner, at the Fountain in 2006 under the most sensitive hand of the late Ben Bradley, did not seem possible to better. Yet the Taper, which has now presented eight of Wilson’s plays, many of them premieres, indubitably has kept the code of its own history intact with this impeccable production. It even purges the acrid memories of the tone-deaf 2009 Broadway production, which went far to damage the play’s rightful place of pride in the Wilson canon and which the Taper show now restores.  

Venue: Mark Taper Forum at The Music Center, downtown Los Angeles (runs through June 9)

Cast: Glynn Turman, Keith David, John Douglas Thompson, Lillas White, Gabriel Brown, January LaVoy, Vivian Nixon, Raynor Scheine, Skye Barrett, Erica Tazel, Nathaniel James Potvin

Director: Phylicia Rashad

Playwright: August Wilson

Set designer: John Iacovelli

Lighting designer: Allen Lee Hughes

Sound designer: Cricket S. Myers

Costume designer: Karen Perry

Music: Kathryn Bostic