KPBS AIRDATE: February 26, 1992
I’ve always thought that “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” was August Wilson’s most powerful play. And although playwrights, like parents, rarely like to compare their creations, I recently read that Wilson admitted it was his favorite, too.
A two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, Wilson is chronicling the history of African-Americans in the twentieth century, decade by decade. “Joe Turner” is set in his native Pittsburgh , in a boarding-house, circa 1911. The title character is no fictional invention. He never appears in the piece, but his presence is constantly felt. Joe Turner was the brother of the Governor of Tennessee, who, forty years after the Emancipation Proclamation, still believed in slavery. In the early 1900s, he would capture black men, yanking them off the road and clamping them onto chain gangs, for seven years of forced labor which terminated on his birthday. “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” is the title of a blues song by W.C. Handy, and it subtly wends its way through the piece.
Music is always important in Wilson ‘s plays, and so is the supernatural. “Joe Turner” has a first act close that is so strongly steeped in culture, music and the metaphysical, it knocks your socks off. I’d list it among my most unforgettable theatrical moments.
Although director Veronica Henson-Phillips clearly recognizes the significance of this scene, she doesn’t give it enough time. The momentum and the frenzy need to build.
In the scene, all the inhabitants of the boarding-house participate in a Sunday-afternoon Juba Dance, the kind of wailin’, testifyin’, speaking in tongues shout-dance that originated in Africa and can be seen in many black churches today. The festivities are interrupted by the foreboding entrance of Herald Loomis, a victim of Joe Turner, a haunted, broken man who has lost his sense of self, “lost his song,” as Wilson puts it. Bynum, the local healer, seeing that Herald is possessed, coaxes him into a frightening, soul-searching journey replete with disturbing visions like “bones rising up out of the water,” the bones of African slaves.
But in the Octad production, there just isn’t enough Juba-dancing before Herald’s exorcism. We don’t quite get caught up in it. The whole mind-boggling experience is over too fast.
But I have no complaint about the two central characters: They’re terrific. Wendel Lucas is downright ominous as Herald, and Julian Moore, who really needs to be seen more around town, is just –well, natural and believable as Bynum, which is no mean feat, given a character who traffics in the ritual use of fresh pigeon blood.
The large supporting cast is serviceable, with some performances more credible than others. Overall, this is a mammoth undertaking, and both Henson-Phillips and Octad-One are to be commended.
We’re now almost at the end of Black History month. You owe it to yourself, and to your dedication to broadening your cultural experience and understanding, to see this potent play — simultaneously direct and symbolic, meaningful and metaphorical.
I’m Pat Launer, for KPBS radio.
©1992 Patté Productions Inc.