A powerful 'Joe Turner' brings August Wilson's Pittsburgh Cycle back to Broadway

Stage Review

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NEW YORK -- "It is August in Pittsburgh, 1911," begins August Wilson's prefatory note. "The sun falls out of heaven like a stone."

That intimation of apocalypse is no window-dressing. In "Joe Turner's Come and Gone," the third play in his 10-play Pittsburgh Cycle, Wilson gets right to the epic heart of his century-long tale of tragic diaspora and the painful recovery of self.

This theme of separation, dispersal and the resulting anguished search rumbles throughout each play in Wilson's century-long cycle. But it is never so breathtakingly acute as in "Joe Turner," where its personification in Herald Loomis anchors tragedy deep in the bedrock of myth.

"Joe Turner" is both primal grit and mystical fire, with dialogue that can soar toward poetry. So it feels completely right that director Bartlett Sher and his design team at Lincoln Center Theater have moved the staging from kitchen sink naturalism toward magical realism. The result is a worthy realization of a great play, limited only by a performance that doesn't quite fill out the epic frame.

[Click here for a report from the opening night party of the August Wilson Theatrical Family.]

Indeed, Sher doesn't go as far down the magical road as future productions may dare. But in place of boarding-house realism, we see a bare wooden platform that could also be a road. Doors, windows and furniture fly in and out, in front of a cyclorama which shimmers with a misty vista, now of Pittsburgh steel mills, now of the world. At the end of Act 1, as Loomis has a terrifying vision of dead Africans along the track of the Atlantic slave trade, that platform is fringed with hellish red.

The story itself, set in a 1911 boarding house somewhere around the junction of Webster and Manilla streets in the Hill, still has its domestic rhythm of daily breakfasts, gossip and chores. But the pervasive atmosphere of arrival and departure echoes deeper forces, as the great tide of African Americans escapes post-slavery oppression, surging northward in search of economic opportunity and dispersed family members.

Everyone is searching. Mattie Cunningham and Molly Campbell seek their future in men; Martha Pentecost seeks hers in religion; Jeremy Furlow, in women and music. Above all, Loomis, with his young daughter Zonia, searches for his wife and the life that was taken from him by the notorious "Joe Turner," who imprisons free blacks to extract free labor in seven year gulps.

Note that name: Herald Loomis comes to herald a radical independence that throws off the deadening past, luminous with self-reliance. In the terms proposed by the resident shaman, Bynum Walker, Loomis "finds his song," the expression of self that sets him free.

Bynum's name tells us his own calling is to help people by binding them to their purpose in life. He's a seeker, too, seeking a "shiny man" to show the way. The boarding house proprietor, Seth Holly, is seeking the independence from prejudice that will set free his entrepreneurial gift. Even Bertha Holly, with all her nurturing stability, seeks a child and finds in Zonia a surrogate.

Only the white peddler, Rutherford Selig, seems content with his lot, which is ironic, since he's the diminished descendent of slave traders and bounty hunters, the original agents of diaspora.

In this rich panorama of personality, that diaspora creates the conflict, culminating first in Loomis' vision of the African holocaust and then in his explosive self-sacrifice.

Unfortunately, the Loomis of Chad L. Coleman doesn't quite fill this demanding frame. He doesn't loom or cause shivers, and his voice lacks dark power, so that in the frantic climactic debate with Martha, she seems to dominate, taking some edge off his final spiritual victory.

This shortfall is the flip side of Coleman's virtue as a more human Loomis. He appears like a forbidding thundercloud, but he has hardly doffed his hat for the first time when we see the pain beneath the craggy exterior. As a sort of reverse-Barrabas, wandering the world to expiate not his own guilt but that of others, Coleman wins our sympathy but not enough of our fear.

The Bynum is all we would wish and more, a dotty, feisty old man who gradually reveals unimagined depth in the Tony-worthy Roger Robinson. (Pittsburghers may recall him from "Driving Miss Daisy" and "Things of Dry Hours" at the Public Theater.) He's a master at starting a meandering aria quietly and offhandedly, amid a welter of distractions orchestrated by Sher, then rising in volume and focus to shine with the prophetic energy of the mountain top.

Among the others, I am especially taken with the variety of the women, who counter the old argument that Wilson doesn't write them well. All five are vivid, especially the contrasting pair of desperate Mattie (Marsha Stephanie Blake) and blowsy Molly (Aunjanue Ellis). Young Amari Rose Leigh's Zonia (named for Wilson's grandmother) brought tears to my eyes.

As Seth, Ernie Hudson effectively walks a careful line between comic relief and shtick or stereotype, and Andrew Holland's Jeremy is appealing in boyish irresponsibility. But I don't understand why Arliss Howard plays Selig's important second scene, with its chilling account of his forebears, seemingly drunk.

This "Joe Turner" more than justifies Lincoln Center Theater's decision to make it the second Wilson play revived on Broadway, after "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom."

I don't know whether Wilson would have sanctioned the assignment to Sher, a white director. But I think Sher's accomplishment justifies the faith in him shown by Wilson's widow, Constanza Romero. Now let's see more black directors hired at the highest level to handle "white" plays.

"Joe Turner" is at the Belasco Theatre, 111 W. 44th St., slated to run at least through June 13; tickets at 800-432-7250.

Read an account of the opening night festivities of "Joe Turner" in the On Stage Journal, and visit the PG's August Wilson archive.

Post-Gazette senior theater critic Christopher Rawson can be reached at crawson@post-gazette.com .


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