Maurice Redwood (Jeremy), Mike Traylor (Bynum Walker), Shaunda Miles McDill (Bertha Holly), Roosevelt Watts Jr (Harold Loomis), Adjoa Opoku-Dakwa (Zonia Loomis) & Kevin Brown (Seth Holly). Credit all photos: Mark Clayton Southers
Some may call it a stretch, but I liken August Wilson’s opus Joe Turner’s Come and Gone to Beethoven’s “Ninth Symphony” and Mahler’s “Eighth Symphony.” All three are large scale, complex, powerful works, considered to be the cream of their makers’ crop.
Writing for a large cast of 11, Wilson eases into each character with such definition and delineation, that it’s easy to develop a mental sketch of their personalities and keep each one distinct from the onset.
The play opens with husband and wife, Seth Holly (Kevin Brown) and Bertha Holly (Shaunda Miles McDill) in the kitchen of their Hill District boarding house, a Pittsburgh landmark for African Americans making their way north from the sharecropper, Jim Crow ways of the South looking for a better life.
Seth is an odd man out because he’s actually a native Northerner, having been born and raised in Pittsburgh and now living in his parents’ house.
Cantankerous and judgmental, Seth speaks words that are often rash and biting. As his long-suffering, gentle and motherly wife, Bertha, she patiently listens to his opinions but has an arsenal of clever retorts that most often hit their mark. As she serves her boarders her breakfast biscuits and Sunday dinner fried chicken, she does so with a gentle kindheartedness I found very appealing.
One of the long-standing boarders, Bynum Walker (Mike Traylor) is an eccentric medicine man who cavorts with pigeons and collects herbs to carry out his shamanistic rituals to heal and “bind” people in need of his remedies.
Traylor is the most colorful of all the characters, proposing mystical ideas that Seth finds off-putting, but the other characters consider with various degrees of credibility or skepticism. Disregarding his arcane belief system, his is often the voice of reason and whose ways provide some of the plays most jocular moments.
Mike Traylor as Bynum Walker & Maurice Redwood as Jeremy
Another character with a genial demeanor, Jeremy Furlow (Maurice Redwood) is a ladies man with an itch to travel and a lust for life. His recent arrest for drunkenness (questions of police profiling and harassment arise) alienates his landlord who warns that his is a proper, respectable boarding house.
Jeremy proceeds to arrange an affair with Mattie Campbell (Dominique Briggs), who visits the house to engage Bynum’s aid to help her find her man who’s just run off. Before long, Jeremy’s attention turns to a resident newcomer, Molly Cunningham (Jamaica Johnson), an independent woman whose self-assertion and confidence is more than match to Jeremy’s manipulations.
In a play about relationships, budding and/or fractured, Rutherford Selig (Marcus Muzopappa) affords the Hollys a mutually advantageous economic arrangement, selling the pans Seth makes as he makes his rounds of the area as an itinerant peddler. He also is known as a finder of people, a service for which he charges a small fee.
Roosevelt Watts Jr as Harold Loomis & Saniya Lavelle as Zonia Loomis
Photo by Chuck Timbers
Into this group of basically even-tempered but needy people comes a foreboding figure in the form of Herald Loomis (Roosevelt Watt, Jr.), a tall, physically powerful man dressed in a long black coat and wide-brimmed hat, despite the hot summery weather outside.]
At his side is his young daughter, Zonia (Saniya Lavelle). Both are on a quest to find their wife/mother, separated after Herald was snatched up by a bounty hunter and forced onto a chain gang down South for seven years. Now free, he’s headed north to find the missing woman with his daughter in hand.
Set in 1911, Joe Turner is the second of Wilson’s ten works that chronicle the African American experience in the 20th century through each of the century‘s ten decades. Joe Turner is both the man responsible for Herald’s seven-year long period of servitude as well as the play’s message to find, as Bynam calls it, your “inner song,” or sense of self in the post-slavery era.
Wisely, Wilson wrote narrative for two young children, Zonia, and the boy next door, Ruben Mercer (Cameron Edwards) who give the dramatic experience, sometimes heavy with darker moods, several lighthearted breaks. The two youngsters form an immediate friendship with Ruben soon developing a childhood crush on the girl.
As Zonia, Saniya J.E. Lavelle had the more challenging role, having to emote a variety of dramatic episodes, a task she carried off with amazing ability.
One scene that particularly alerted me to Wilson’s power of the pen takes place in Act Two. It begins around the kitchen table with an infectious joke that ignites a bout of laughter followed by everyone getting up and dancing a spirited “juba” that verges on Pentecostal jubilation.
The episode soon collapses into a dark place when Herald is severely affected and undergoes a terrifying, homicidal rage. The facile way in which Wilson scripts the emotional transition from happy and benign to horror and dismay is simply amazing.
Roosevelt Watts Jr as Harold Loomi & Karla Payne as Martha Pentecost
The play’s resolution comes about when Herald’s long-lost wife, Martha Pentecost (Karla Payne), arrives at the house. Past wounds are addressed, and Herald experiences an epiphany, one you might not expect.
When I heard the play ran close to two hours and 45 minutes (including intermission), I felt a bit of concern that my attention span might not be up to the task at hand. But, as I explained to director, Mark Clayton Southers, after the audience’s standing ovation, I was so wrapped up in the experience, time just seemed to fly by and my interest never wavered.
At this point, I’ve seen six or seven plays in Wilson’s American Century Cycle. Joe Turner has to be my current favorite. It’s accessible, interesting, packed with a variety of emotions, insights into the African American experience, a cultural documentary of sorts presented in dramatic form, a learning experience and something loaded with entertainment value.
A co-production of Pittsburgh Playwright Theatre Company and the August Wilson House, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone ran from August 5 through September 10 at the August Wilson House, 1727 Bedford Avenue in Pittsburgh‘s Hill District. For more information on PPTC’s upcoming productions, visit website https://www.pghplaywrights.org.