FEATURE: The Greene Space’s August Wilson’s American Century Cycle-Joe Turner’s Come and Gone Recap

Phylicia Rashad and I

Phylicia Rashad and I!

Yesterday I witnessed yet another stellar production by the team at Greene Space! New York Public Radio is doing an exquisite job in presenting the August Wilson Century Cycle. An outstanding cast of Broadway and Hollywood notables assembled and, under the direction of the legendary Phylicia Rashad, a breathtaking performance ensued. Given that the cast only has two days to rehearse, I’m sure it helped that about half of them had previously performed their roles at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, also under the director of Ms. Rashad.

Tip: continue reading & scroll all the way to the bottom for access to the exclusive press conference with Ruben Santiago Hudson, Phylicia Rashad, Taraji P. Henson, and S. Epatha Merkerson!

Many people I spoke to at the event claimed that Joe Turner’s Come and Gone was their favorite of all the Wilson plays. It is said, in fact, that Wilson himself favored this play above the rest. Although Joe Turner’s Come and Gone certainly did not garner the same success and notoriety as, say, Fences and The Piano Lesson in its original Broadway production, it is still a remarkable play. In 2009, it was revived on Broadway, and earned 6 Tony nominations, winning 2. One for Best Lighting Design and the other for Best Featured Actor in a Play, which went to Roger Robinson for his portrayal of Bynum Walker. It was a privilege and an honor to watch him reprise his role in the reading yesterday. It’s no wonder he just about stole the whole show! Every nuance and inflection was simply brilliant. I couldn’t imagine the role being played by anyone else!

Joe Turner’s Come and Gone takes place in the kitchen of a Pittsburgh boarding house in 1911. While the play is not wrought with enthralling action, the magic lies in its complex simplicity. Before the show began, Executive Producer Indira Etwaroo gave a speech and noted how August Wilson’s plays often deal with, “the most complex parts of our humanity.” Joe Turner is no different. This play is very much about the people, the language they use, and their personal plights.  A plot synopsis simply wouldn’t do it justice. Seth Holly (played by Keith David) is certainly the “man of the house,” and his booming personality is perfectly matched by S. Epatha Merkerson’s Bertha. She stopped the show in Act Two when she broke into hysterical laughter after the well-known quote, “All you need in the world is love and laughter. That’s all anybody needs. To have love in one hand and laughter in the other.” The lovely January LaVoy (who played Mattie Campbell) laughed so hard she cried! It doesn’t get much more human than that!

The Greene Space, elegantly draped with tapestries provided by set designer Hollis King. Each tapestry contains a quote from one of the ten plays. King worked intimately with Wilson's widow, Constanza Romero, to develop the set in order to, in her words, "remind the audiences that there was a man who sat and put pen to paper when they see these plays."

The Greene Space, elegantly draped with tapestries provided by set designer Hollis King. Each tapestry contains a quote from one of the ten plays. King worked intimately with Wilson’s widow, Constanza Romero, to develop the set in order to, in her words, “remind the audiences that there was a man who sat and put pen to paper when they see these plays.”

It could be argued that Harold Loomis (played stunningly by John Douglas Thompson) is the protagonist of the play. The pensive and tormented freed slave who escaped the captivity of Joe Turner is a man of few words. That is, until the play ends with his cathartic self realization and the discovery of “his song!”

This play is equal parts compelling and complex. Diving deep into historical aspects of African-American culture, I see how it could possibly isolate certain audience members. Luckily, this audience was on board beginning to end! Near the end of act one, there is a Juba on stage. Even those unfamiliar with this African song/dance ritual intended to invoke the Holy Ghost, could still appreciate the entertainment aspect. Shortly after the Juba, Loomis started speaking in tongues and it was clear that something powerful and important was happening on stage. Voodoo conjurer, Bynum, tells Loomis he’s got to “find his song,” meaning his true identity. For someone who just recently escaped slavery, this can seem like a near impossible task. In Loomis, we see a man desperately searching to make meaning out of his life.

 “You got to be something, Herald. You just can’t be alive. Life don’t mean nothing unless it got a meaning.”

-Martha, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone

The play’s climax and most rewarding moment comes at the end, when Loomis is finally reunited with his wife, Martha (played by my acting coach Rosalyn Coleman). It was the touching moment we’d all been waiting for. Yet it is made tragic by Loomis coming to the realization that he’d been chasing after a bygone dream and a life could never be. Heartbreaking and so real. That’s August Wilson!

If Joe Turner isn’t a masterpiece, then it’s certainly a remarkable piece! Wilson’s esoteric writing isn’t for everyone, but I believe everyone can appreciate it. I hope that by preserving this slice of theatrical history, younger generations can appreciate and feel connected to their ancestors. As Ruben Santiago-Hudson says, “Never let anybody teach your grandmother out of you.”

After the show, I was fortunate enough to attend a Press conference with Ruben Santiago Hudson, Phylicia Rashad, Taraji P. Henson, and S. Epatha Merkerson (pictured below). This talented group of artists provided a candid peek into the August Wilson Project and what it means for today’s audience. I highly recommend taking a listen to this EXCLUSIVE discussion, available below (turn the volume up to hear as clearly as possible):

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~Halle Morse

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