Call it the “wow” effect. Or, in the idiom of “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone”, “Hosanna”. For what a glorious revival this is of August Wilson’s play about African Americans in a Pittsburgh boarding house in 1911. Here the melody of daily life juts up against religious and folkloric ritual, symbolism blends with realism, human and divine comedies merge.
The Holly boarding house is just the crossroad where the characters gather. Here men form the South seeking work and women looking to better their lives arrive. And while the characters are as kaleidoscopic as one could imagine, they share a common quest — the need to move beyond the past and the bondage it represents.
The most appealing character is Bynum (Roger Robinson), the soothsayer of the boarding house whose healing practices are described as a kind of voodoo or as Seth Holly puts it “heebie jeebie stuff”. Mysticism, tied to African lore, is at the core of Bynam’s identity. He uses his roots, herbs and magical cures to help others by binding people together. To that extent, his name (bind ‘em) plays on the value of human “bonds” as opposed to “bondage”.
But identity, as Bynum also explains it, is learning “to sing your own song”. In “Joe Turner” music is a central element. In addition to the rhythms of everyday speech, which Wilson captures so beautifully, there is an intoxicating blues guitar that plays between scenes along with spiritual singing that accompanies an African looking dance called the Juba, performed in the climactic scene at the end of Act I. When the residents stomp their way around the dinner table, the newly arrived Herald Loomis (Chad L. Coleman) works his way into a frenzy, imploring the Holy Ghost while describing his vision of bones walking on water. While the spectacle resembles a tribal ritual, it evokes the dry bones prophesy of Ezekiel with its foreshadowing of the Resurrection.
But for Loomis, a man with the bleakest state of mind, the ritual turns into a paroxysm of paralyzing pain, as though his legs were still bound by chains. As we will soon discover, he was abducted by Joe Turner and enslaved for seven years. Taking him for dead, his wife left him. The play focuses on Loomis seeking his long lost wife. So he arrives at the boarding house with their young daughter in hand, searching for her.
Coleman gives a brilliant portrayal of this sad hulk of a man who ultimately tears through his skin to discover the spirit which shines within him. He’s joined by a well-balanced ensemble including the energetic Andre Holland as Jeremy, the young man with the urge to sow his seeds, Ernie Hudson (Seth Holly) as the Capitalist who shuns his African heritage, Latanya Richardson Jackson, his wife who expresses love and laughter, and most importantly Roger Robinson who portrays the voodoo healer with subtlety and wisdom.
As directed by Bartlett Sher, “Joe Turner’s” spirituality and its inspirational message are most artfully delivered. In this paradoxical blend of spiritualism with naturalism, the search for self is transcendent, almost supernatural, culminating in Herald Loomis’ ecstatic redemption which elevates us all.
The bare bones setting, designed by Michael Yeargan, translates a physical world that parallels the play’s style: it is both real and ethereal. But what really defines the space is the ongoing life of these characters in search of themselves.
By Isa Goldberg
“Joe Turner’s Come and Gone”
Where: Belasco Theatre, 111 West 44th Street
When: Tuesday through Saturday at 8:00 P.M., Wednesday and Saturday at 2:00 P.M. and Sunday at 3:00 P.M.
Tickets: Call Telecharge at 212-239-6200, go to the box office or visit www.telecharge.com.