A Man Comes to Pittsburgh Looking For His Wife--and Maybe Even Part of Himself
At the very least, August Wilson knows how to end on a high note. The two halves of Joe Turner's Come and Gone conclude with full-tilt cathartic revelations. Just before intermission, mystery man Herald Loomis (Javon Johnson) breaks into a Sunday evening washboard jamboree with a visionary, nightmarish monologue, in which he sees the "bones" of his ancestors walking across the ocean. And at the end of the last act--well, instead of giving it away, leave it at this: It turns the monologue amp up to 11. Directing this Center Stage production with an even, controlled hand, Derrick Sanders and his cast make sure we understand how he gets to those searing moments.
Wilson is writing about Pittsburgh, and he's dealing with issues stemming from Southern blacks' Northern migration--and Center Stage's dramaturg provides an inclusive historical and social panorama--but there's a magic to Joe Turner that eclipses the era itself. Without a strong central plot, the characters float in and out of this play as they would out of a train station. They start strangers, form sudden intimacies, and depart to parts unknown. There are people who desperately try to network, and there are those who take care of the station. And when the week comes to an end (or the train arrives), we are less aware than ever of what's going on. But people have gotten to know one another in a few hours better than many families know each other after 30 years. The contortions that they have gone through are fascinating and a little frightening, so it's no surprise--and no affectation--for these two acts to end with huge, two-fisted monologues.
As for the plot itself: In 1911 Pittsburgh, the city is swarming with migrants from the South who have come up assuming (mistakenly, according to Wilson) that the North is going to solve their problems. Bertha (Myra Lucretia Taylor) and Seth Holly (James Williams) run a rooming house that takes in many of these travelers. They charge $2 a week, meals included. At present, they're hosting an amiable, gray-haired visionary named Bynum Walker (Cedric Young), who calls himself a "binder." A less savory figure is the young, restless Jeremy Furlow (Rob Riley), who gets in the occasional scrape. Then Mattie Campbell (Roslyn Ruff), a young woman who has been abandoned by her husband, arrives.
Whatever equilibrium remains is destroyed by the entrance of Herald Loomis, a mysterious, hulking presence. After spending seven years in a chain gang in the South, he's come to Pittsburgh with his daughter Zonia (Miah Marie Patterson) in tow, looking for a woman who, he says, has left him. As the house fills to capacity, the tension builds. Seth tries to keep the rules enforced, Bertha tries to keep the meals hot, and Bynum tries to make sense of it all with odd pronouncements.
But as the glowering, volcanic Loomis starts to tromp around the place, the peace gets harder to keep. He wanders around town for days, looking for the wife --whom he says he can "smell"--and coming back occasionally for his corn-bread muffin. Zonia also wanders around and finds a boyfriend, Reuben (Neiman Outlen), roughly her age.
The combustion occurs as promised. But while Loomis is the one who blows his top, Bynum fires him up. Young delivers a magnetic performance as Bynum, beginning as an eccentric oddball and ending up as a sort-of priest (or witch doctor) for lost souls. As Loomis, Johnson fits the part perfectly: Monologues aside, he brings an intense physical presence to the role of the wandering ex-sharecropper, lurking behind his huge, bedraggled overcoat. That ominous charisma wakes the play out of its sleepy, chatty opening; it's almost therapeutic when Loomis bares his soul. Young himself may be a binder, but he brings a mischievous energy to Bynum. He wants to light Loomis' fuse.
The show undoubtedly centers around Bynum and Loomis, but the somewhat subdued, distanced lives of the other characters form a counterpart. As Bakesta King, Molly Cunningham is a society lady at first glimpse, and you realize that she's more of a dance-hall flapper at the end. As Jeremy, Riley produces a similarly complex performance: eager, likable, and energetic, but also unfaithful and probably headed toward a bad end. As Mattie Campbell, Ruff has a more passive role until the end, when her character develops a reluctant attraction to Loomis.
The somewhat off-kilter angles of Neil Patel's set make it appear that the house is a raft in rough waters. And that's the case. The only thing that brings this lost group of travelers together is Loomis' cathartic explosions. If, at the end, a peace falls over the Hollys' rooming house, it's one of exhaustion. Loomis has found his voice. Meanwhile, Jeremy has headed out on another long road to nowhere. August Wilson appears to be wondering why, in this unbalanced and disjunctive country, the act of finding one's voice has to be so self-lacerating. Wilson is, most effectively, a poet of American displacement, and when you see productions like this one, you'll agree that he deserves as much stage time as he's getting.
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