‘Joe Turner’s Come and Gone’: A tale of searching, tinged with mysticism
By Toby Zinman, for The Inquirer
Joe Turner’s Come and Gone is a big, strong, juicy play, and Plays & Players’ production is just as big, strong, and juicy. Representing the second decade in August Wilson’s “Century Cycle,” Joe Turner takes place a hundred years ago in 1911, a suitable choice for Plays & Players Theater’s 100th anniversary. While the building may be old, the company is new; it’s led by Daniel Student, who is rapidly proving himself a young director of range and vision.
Joe Turner – brother of Pete Turner, a late-19th-century governor of Tennessee – arbitrarily seized black men off the streets and forced them into slave farm labor for periods of seven years. Herald Loomis (the excellent Kash Goins), the mysterious, half-destroyed visionary figure at the center of Joe Turner, has spent three years since being freed walking with his young daughter Zonia (Lauryn Jones), searching for the wife who vanished while he was captive. They arrive at a Pittsburgh boardinghouse – the perfect locale to represent the comings and goings of the Northern Migration – run by the practical Seth Holly (James Tolbert) and his comforting wife, Bertha (Cherie Jazmyn).
The other residents are a hoodoo man named Bynam (the thrilling Damien Wallace), who can bind people with a song and spell; Jeremy, a hotshot country bumpkin (Jamal Douglas); Mattie, a sweet, often-betrayed woman (Candace Thomas); and Molly, beautiful and dangerous (Mle Chester). There is a boy (Brett Gray) next door, who befriends Zonia, and a traveling peddler (Bob Weick), the “people finder” who is the grandson of slave traders.
Their lives briefly intersect – as they would in a week-to-week boardinghouse – mingling romance and business and desperation and pain and storytelling. The play powerfully suggests significance far beyond the plot: In the vision Herald Loomis sees of bones walking on the water and of people “shaking hands and saying goodbye to each other and walking every whichaway down the road,” Wilson give us the Middle Passage, to slavery, to the diaspora, to freedom.
The play lays down a solid layer of mundane detail – lots of biscuit-eating and coffee-drinking and dishwashing – allowing the extraordinary to stand out, especially the terrific Juba scene: wild, African-derived dancing after Sunday night’s fried-chicken dinner. The interesting set designed by Lance Kniskern is, suitably, half realistic, half suggestive, allowing the mysticism to mingle with the commonplace.