Review: `Joe Turner’s Come and Gone’

Cast members of Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone feel the spirit (from left): Barry Shabaka Henley as Seth, Kim Staunton as Bertha, Don Guillory as Jeremy and Brent Jennings as Bynum. Photos by kevinberne.com

 

Berkeley Rep delivers an extraordinary `Joe’
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At Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Wednesday night opening of Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, a powerful drama by the late August Wilson, it was hard not to think about the turning wheels of history.

The night before, election night, we elected our first African-American president, and on Wednesday, in the Roda Theatre, we were taken back to Pittsburgh circa 1911, when the scars of slavery were fresh and its legacy of pain keenly felt by generations attempting to move on.

Joe Turner, the second chapter in Wilson’s extraordinary cycle of plays depicting African-American life in each decade of the 20th century, is set only 97 years in our nation’s past yet it seems like ancient history. But what is so extraordinary about Wilson’s work here is that his history is not dates and facts and events so much as emotion, spirit and the weight of humanity.

Director Delroy Lindo, who starred in the original 1988 Broadway production, pays close attention to the details that infuse Wilson’s play with so much intensity. There’s the play we see and hear, and then there’s the subtext, where chains of the past, religious beliefs and the supernatural are waging a mighty battle.

Seth Holly (Barry Shabaka Henley) is somewhat removed from the history that infuses the Pittsburgh boarding house he runs with his wife, Bertha (Kim Staunton). Seth was born in the north and has, as he puts it, never even seen cotton, which makes his experience vastly different from the hordes of men, women and children migrating north from the South.

An enterprising metalworker, Seth is a man ruled by common sense. He doesn’t have much tolerance for boarders’ nonsense such as the “heebie jeebie” spirit work of Bynum Walker (Brent Jennings) or the late-night carousing of young buck Jeremy Furlow (Don Guillory).

But Seth’s primary test comes in the form of an intensely wound stranger who arrives with his 11-year-old daughter. Herald Loomis (Teagle F. Bougere in the role originated by director Lindo) is fresh from seven years hard labor on Joe Turner’s illegal chain gang, and he’s in search of the wife who abandoned him and his daughter, Zonia (Nia Reneé Warren, who shares the role with Inglish Amore Hills).

Herald hires Rutherford Selig (Dan Hiatt), a former finder of runaway slaves who is now an itinerant metal goods salesman, to find his wife, and that’s about it for plot save for Jeremy’s adventures with the women boarders, Mattie Campbell (Tiffany Michelle Thompson) and Molly Cunningham (Erica Peeples, above with Jennings). Jeremy is what will later be called a player, but he also represents a younger generation’s refusal to accept the secondary status of black people and is poised – with a woman on each arm and a come-hither line about his “ten-pound hammer” – to fight back.

Plot is secondary in this beautifully acted 2 ½-hour drama, which also features fine work from cast members Keanu Beausier (sharing the role with Victor McElhaney) and Kenya Brome. Wilson’s rich dialogue comes to vivid life in the hands of such remarkable actors as Jennings, who brings an otherworldly quality to the enigmatic Bynum, and Bougere, who elicits as much fear as he does compassion.

There’s a warmth and a camaraderie that emanates through the Holly boarding house (Scott Bradley’s set combines realistic detail with sketched-in flourishes), and there’s an extraordinary scene that involves Sunday dinner, music and unexpected rhythms of the spirit.

The search for identity – described in the play by Bynum as finding one’s song – is at the heart of Joe Turner. It’s no accident that the title comes from an old song about a terrible man just as most of the characters in the play are aching for something new to sing.
Joe Turner’s Come and Gone is graceful and deeply felt with surprising bursts of passion. With the skill of both poet and dramatist, August Wilson reminds us how close our past is and yet, on this day in November, 2008, how mercifully far away.

FOR MORE INFORMATION:

Joe Turner’s Come and Gone continues through Dec. 14 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $33-$71. Call 510-647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org.

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