I had the Binding Song. I choose that song because that’s what I seen most when I was traveling. . . people walking away and leaving one another. So I takes the power of my song and binds them together.
Bertha Holly (Latanya Richardson Jackson) says she isn’t superstitious even as she only half-mockingly tosses salt across the floor of the Pittsburgh boarding house for blacks where she and her proprietor husband, Seth (Ernie Hudson), try to maintain a respectable dignity. In August Wilson’s stirring and riveting “Joe Turner’s Come And Gone,” salt is the least of the superstitiously imposed elements that crop up.
With a strong metaphysical impulse and an even stronger literary one, Wilson turned his attention in this play to the plight of the progeny of former slaves whose lives and psyches have been irreparably maimed by years of inhumane servitude and separation from family. The play, set in 1911 Pittsburgh, is the second installment in his cycle of 10 plays about the African-American experience during each of the decades of the 20th century.
As Wilson began so memorably with “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” (1984) and continuing through “Radio Golf” (2007), he cast dramatic spells about many of his unforgettable characters. But he cast no spell more profound and emotionally binding than the one that enables Bynum (Roger Robinson) in “Joe Turner’s Come And Gone.” An herbalist, healer/”rootworker,” and boarder (“Just like glue, I sticks people together”), Bynum helps the needy with his supernatural powers. Opening on Broadway in 1988, this play has a lot to do with magic and believing but is primarily about the search for self-identity and the destiny of a people who must find their roots in order to secure their present.
Inheriting the boarding house from his father, the Northern-born Seth earns his living, aside from the boarders, with a night job and making tin pots and pans. More importantly, his boarding house serves as a relative haven for the displaced and insecure.
The arrival of Herald Loomis (Chad L. Coleman), a fearsome, unfriendly man dressed all in black, gives everyone the shudders. He is accompanied by his young daughter, Zonia (Amari Rose Leigh), who is taken under the kindly Bertha’s wing to help with the chores. Revealed as a former church deacon who has been searching for his wife for 11 years, Loomis, though given to mystical hallucinations, was the victim of Memphis-based Joe Turner, a loathsome man who falsely imprisoned blacks for years of hard labor.
Not exactly the enchanted cottage, the boarding house nevertheless acts as a neutral, healing ground for the transient souls who sojourn there. It isn’t a stretch to think of O’Neill’s “The Iceman Cometh” as you see the characters unburden themselves. They include Jeremy (Andre Holland), a would-be ladies’ man with a guitar; Mattie (Marsh Stephanie Blake), a sweet woman who takes up with Jeremy after her husband just went down the road one day; Molly (Aunjanue Ellis), a cynical, sensual, good-time girl with her eye on Jeremy; and Bynum, the spiritual grounder for Loomis’ apocalyptical fits and visions.
Bertha’s philosophy — “That’s all anybody needs, love in one hand and laughter in the other” — balances the sense of loss that permeates the play. Perhaps because of its strongly metaphysical aura, similar in tone to his later play, “Gem of the Ocean” (which conjures up spirits of the dead) “Joe Turner’s Come And Gone” has not proven as popular or as accessible in theme as either “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” or “Fences.” The current political and social climate may change that. Wilson declared “Joe Turner Has Come and Gone” to be his favorite. If one play can be singled out from the other nine brilliant and ambitious plays to be his masterpiece, this may be it. Certainly this wonderful Lincoln Center Theater production will help place it among the must-see plays of this season.
A splendid ensemble, under the direction of Bartlett Sher, graces this stunning Broadway revival of the play that first appeared on Broadway 21 years ago. Having brought renewed luster to two Lincoln Center-produced revivals, (the current) “South Pacific” and “Awake and Sing,” Sher once again proves a master at keeping the integrity of the original. But it is the way he has anchored Wilson’s earthy text to a spatially fluid reality that is simply stunning. Designer Michael Yeargan’s spare, effective boarding-house setting is enhanced dramatically by the haunting, otherworldly atmospherics created by lighting designer Brian MacDevitt. Worthy of mention is the otherwise realistic vegetable, flower, and herb garden that appears to be flourishing at the edge of the stage.
Coleman, who is making his Broadway debut, has a long time to wait before he lets all hell break loose. But he is an imposing presence from the start as the deeply troubled and volatile Herald Loomis. Robinson is no stranger to Wilson’s dramatic literature, earning a Tony nomination for his role in “Seven Guitars.” What more praise can I offer Robinson than to say that he is a spell-binder as Bynum?
Danai Gurira is excellent in a role that I cannot reveal without disclosing too much. The young Ms. Leigh (Zonia), and Michael Cummings, as Reuben the boy who lives next door, are two adorable and talented children making their Broadway debuts. Another among the many fine Broadway debuts is made by Andre Holland as the white peddler who moonlights as a people-finder. A mix of the mystical and real, allegorical and earthy, the fact that “Joe Turner’s Come And Gone” (as Sher states in a program note) “has resurfaced at this particular moment is great.” Indeed, it is.
According to an article, “The Blues as Folk-Songs” by Dorothy Scarborough, “Joe Turner, the inspiration of the song, was a brother of Pete Turner, once governor of Tennessee. He was an officer and he used to come to Memphis and get prisoners to carry them to Nashville after a kangaroo court. When the Negroes said of any one, ‘Joe Turner’s been to town,’ they meant that the person in question had been carried off hand-cuffed to be gone no telling how long.” ****
“Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” through Sunday, June 14, Lincoln Center Theater at the Belasco Theater, 111 West 44th Street. $51.50 to $96.50. 212-239-6200.