Wilson’s ‘Joe Turner’ reopens Huntington Theatre
BOSTON – One part of the genius of renowned playwright August Wilson was his ability to transform you to a time and place that had the feel of reality, with complicated, well-developed characters who delivered engaging, lively dialogue that quickly brought you into the story.
Wilson authored the “Century Cycle,” with one play set during each decade of the 20th Century. The Huntington chose Wilson’s “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” to re-open the century-old Huntington Theatre after it went dark for 941 days due to the pandemic and 20 months of extensive renovations.
One of those changes is the re-naming of the theater’s lobby for Wilson himself; the expansion of the lobby and other changes are to be part of the second part of the renovations.
“Joe Turner” was first presented at the Huntington Theatre in 1986 and Managing Director Michael Maso said it was a joy to hear “the play come alive again” as the new cast performed a work he treasures.
“Joe Turner” is set in Pittsburgh in 1911 during the early years of the Great Migration, when millions of African-Americans – including some freed former slaves or sharecroppers – left the South for new lives and opportunities in the North.
Often they found refuge in boarding houses, such as the one operated by Seth Holly, a character in the capable hands of the redoubtable Maurice Emmanuel Parent. He is a sometimes-prickly, no-nonsense type who avoids trouble and warns his borders to do the same. He manufacturers metal goods – mostly pots and pans – on the side, with an eye towards expanding his business.
His wife Bertha (Shannon Lamb) is warm and welcoming, the type of person who can make a boarding house a home for anyone who comes into the door, with coffee, grits, biscuits, and fried chicken to boot.
Bynum Walker (Robert Cornelius) is not only a mystic, but he also waxes poetic on many topics, especially when he talks about his encounters with the “shiny man” who holds the key to the “Secrets of Life.”
Jeremy Furlow (Stewart Evan Smith) is a young man working on a road gang during the day and then moonlighting as a guitarist at night, anxious for female companionship and determined to leave his mark as a musician – if he can stay out of jail.
And while several of the characters in “Joe Turner” are plus-sized personalities, Herald Loomis (James Milord) is decidedly different. A former church deacon, he was separated from his wife Martha (Patrese D. McClain) when bounty hunter Joe Turner collared him and forced him to work on a chain gang for seven years. Now he roams from town to town with his daughter Zonia (Gray Flaherty, who alternates with Alana Ross) in search of his wife, a bitter, disillusioned man.
Walker identifies that Herald has lost something invaluable in “his song” – that is, his identity – in the face of his forced labor and having his family torn apart.
Herald parts with a hard-earned dollar early on to engage a genial “people finder” named Rutherford Selig (Lewis D. Wheeler). He is a dealer of metal goods who engages Seth to manufacture goods for him; he takes a series of notes about Martha from Herald and hopes to have results for him when he returns.
Everyone in “Joe Turner” is looking for something or someone. A woman named Mattie Campbell (Al-nisa Petty) waits for a lover to return but finds a “temporary” replacement in Jeremy.
But there’s competition afoot in the boarding house with the arrival of the glamorous Molly Cunningham (Dela Meskienyar), who also is seeking male company – with conditions attached.
Examples of the racial injustices of the time abound: Seth would like to expand his business but is informed he must sign over the deed to his home to get a loan; Jeremy is asked to kick back part of his pay on a road gang to a boss, while white workers are not.
And, in the case of Herald Loomis, it is one indignity and injustice after another, and they mount, boil and fester until it seems almost inevitable he will reach his breaking point.
Director Lili-Anne Brown has cast wisely and well, and the piece flows beautifully.
Even by his own standards, Wilson is tackling a lot of issues when it comes to “Joe Turner.” Loss and separation. Redemption and resilience in the face of almost impossible odds. The need to connect with someone or something, and the ability to persevere when the slights and injustices begin to pile up and threaten to overwhelm you
Yet Wilson manages to cover all of this ground and more, often humorously, with characters real enough to reach out and touch and a director and cast who are skilled and strong enough to make Wilson’s poetic dialogue, after a 36-year intermission, sing out again.
The Huntington production of “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.” Written by August Wilson. Directed by Lili-Anne Brown. At the Huntington Theatre through Nov. 13. HuningtonTheatre.org