Yet for all the stark visions—and in the world of 1911, less than half a century away from slavery, how could there not be those?—there’s something very hopeful to be found in this gripping production by African American Repertory Theater at KD Studio Theatre. Director and veteran actor Willie Minor, who also takes the all-important role of the “conjure man” Bynum, has a feel for the seamless interplay of the natural and supernatural worlds in this work, and for its unabashed mingling of poetry and prose. He gets fine work from a large cast, who impress both as an ensemble and as vividly drawn individual characters.
Joe Turner is the second of playwright Wilson’s 10-play cycle following the lives of black Americans in each decade of the 20th century—and there’s a local “two-fer” available: until June 8 the third play, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, can be seen at Jubilee Theatre in Fort Worth. (Here is our review.) Both works show that our idea of history as a never-stopping cavalcade is wrong—that for real people, history is more like the unsteady ride of a rocking horse, sometimes bouncing us forward, into the future, sometimes flinging us back into the past.
In Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, hope comes from both ends of history: first, from the mystical, mysterious Bynum, whose name, he says, is a sign of his life’s mission to connect people who belong together—to “bind ‘em” with the arts he’s carried down from the African ancestors. “Just like glue, I sticks folks together,” he says. And then it comes from the practical, future-oriented kindness of the couple who run the boarding house, Seth Holly (David Butler) and his wife Bertha (Liz Francisco). Fellowship, comfort food, good advice: they’re Mom, Dad and grandparents to the “country” folk of the Great Migration, up North for the first time and more than a little lost.
There’s gentle Mattie Campbell (Ayoka Lawson), a “full woman” who deserves love, but is abandoned by the man who brought her here, away from her Georgia and Texas roots…wised-up Molly Cunningham (Lisa B. Whitfield), ready to take the best offer she gets, and sure one man is the same as another…and country boy Jeremy Furlow (Artist Thornton Jr.), a guitar-playing rover who’s attracted to the both of them. The old man Bynum, who chants and dances (and sacrifices the occasional pigeon) in the backyard makes them shake their heads and laugh—but they are also half-wary, half-admiring of his power.
Seth Holly makes pots and pans for roving peddler and “first-class people-finder” Rutherford Selig (Chris Messersmith), a canny, genial white man with a family history of the same that stretches back into slave and bounty-hunter days. Seth, born of free parents in Pittsburgh, is less haunted by the communal past. He’s a happy guy with a good idea: he wants to pass along his skill at making useful things. All those young folks look like students to him, each one needing a way to make a living and a place for themselves in a white man’s world.
The arrival of Loomis and daughter Zonia (Jada Bailey on the day reviewed, alternating with Campbell Williams) shakes up the Holly house. “Somethin’ ain’t sittin’ right with that fellow,” says Seth. Loomis is in search of his wife Martha. At first, we’re not sure how they were separated, or how Loomis ended up with his daughter. Slowly, though, we come to know he’s spent years on a chain gang. The “Joe Turner” who comes and goes in the song Bynum sings is based on real history: the brother of a Tennessee governor in the late 1800s was in the lucrative business of “finding” modern-day slave labor for cotton farms and businesses along the Mississippi.
Though the wise Mattie Campbell tells Loomis to “start from right where you are” and make a new life, Loomis feels he won’t shake off the past until he finds his wife. He is protective but hard-as-nails with his sad little daughter, who finds comfort in her friendship with a lively neighbor boy Reuben (Bentley Green). The house is a community, and contains multitudes: everyday troubles and joys mix with the haunted dreams of Mattie, Loomis and other characters—and all of it is overseen by the hovering Bynum, who sings his “healing song” for them all.
In true Wilson fashion, the first act builds to a crescendo that encompasses all that emotion: the joy of a “juba” call-and-response circle gives all the characters a chance to soar, and triggers a wild and disturbing response from Loomis. Minor and McGill are amazing in this scene: Bynum crouched over Loomis, with words so intimately spoken we must lean in to hear them—and Loomis’ answering howls leave him raw and revealed. In the second act, we will hope that some (though not all) dreams are fulfilled, and that these characters will find their own very different paths to freedom.
The cast is very fine across the board, including Regina Washington in a brief but vital role in the closing minutes. It seems fair simply to say they all—even the youngest—do Wilson’s work proud. The stage set by Kenneth John Verdugo uses vintage woodwork and furnishings to sketch the comforts of a big, turn-of-the-century home—complete with yard swing. If there’s one mild complaint to be made, it’s that in striving for ordinary, intimate speech, the actors sometimes forget they still need enough volume to reach the back rows. But that’s a minor issue, and AART’s production is another solid entry in the company’s pledge to get every bit of Wilson’s “Century Cycle” onstage.
If you’re counting, this makes play Number Five—they’re halfway home.