Around the table of an African-American boardinghouse in the Hill District of Pittsburg during the early years of the 20th century are the faces of people of all ages in transit, in transition or just looking for something, a milieu drama of what folks do differently, facing the rigors of a common situation of discrimination and uprootedness. They’re in August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, directed by Delroy Lindo on Berkeley Rep’s Roda Stage, in association with the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, the Rep’s first Wilson show.
Jeremy (Don Guillory) is a young laborer from the rural South, looking for a place to play his guitar and a woman to keep him company while he wanders to “see all the places.” Bynum (Brent Jennings)—a “heebie-jeebie” man who binds people with his song—is looking for his Shining Man who showed him the meaning of life one day on the road.
Joining them are Molly Cunningham (Erica Peeples), who, it turns out, is looking for a man to spend his money on her, though she declared she loves nobody but her mother; Mattie Campbell (Tiffany Michelle Thompson), looking to make sense of things after her man just walked away in search of something else; and Herald Loomis (Teagle F. Bougere), the role Lindo originated, hovering mysteriously about in heavy coat and hat with the crown pushed up and brim pulled down, who arrives with his daughter (Nia Renee Warren or Inglish Amore Hills), searching for the wife who left years before when he was forced into a work gang, rounded up by the semi-mythic Joe Turner of the title, a governor’s brother, whose name Bynum keeps intoning in snatches of a blues.
Only their host Seth Holly (Barry Shebaka Henley) and his wife Bertha (Kim Staunton) aren’t wandering in spirit. Seth is the son of a Free Man who built the house and taught him to make pots and pans—though he’s chafing at the bit, looking for someone to back a manufacturing concern. And Rutherford Selig (Dan Hiatt), who takes his wares on the roads to sell, wanders, but only to bring back those he’s found.
Loomis, haunted and diffident, finally tells his story, urged on by Bynum—and later acts out his vision of “bone people” from underwater, who surface and walk on the waves, while Loomis witnesses and finds he cannot stand. His passion erupts as the others happily celebrate a “Juba” dance.
Readers and spectators of Wilson’s other plays—especially his lifework, completed just before his untimely death, a sequence of Pittsburgh Hill District dramas covering every decade of black life last century—will find much that’s familiar, both in the structure of action and in the hints and more explicit references to and appearances of folklore and spiritual wisdom, historical events and fictional characters that wend their way through his series of tableaux. The “bone people,” for instance—and at one point, Loomis shoots Bynum a look and says, “Now I know who you are, one of those bone people!”—are the spirits of slaves buried at sea on the infamous Passage from Africa, evoked as an initiatory ritual to “the city of bones” in Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean, and in other moments in other plays.
Wilson started out a poet, and there’s something of the esoteric knowing of the poet in his weaving of themes and events, of serving as voice for the unrepresented, telling them parables of their history.
The cast is a very good one, professional actors in the realest sense, dedicated to their characters and the story. They lend their aura to what is always an interesting, if not always gripping, telling.
Part of that is in the direction. Lindo, who worked with Wilson as an actor in productions of his plays, directed the successful Blue Door for The Rep, a flexible, lyrical memory play with a cast of two. With a more formal production, as well as a bigger cast and broader historical and metaphysical themes, the solid portrayals of the actors in ensemble don’t seem to add up to more than the sum of their parts, don’t “bind together” in the heat of the big moments that arise suddenly from much expository (as well as humorous and touching) dialogue.
But part of the flatness, the vestigial sense in much of what’s said and done, comes from the somewhat academic, schematic formalism of the play itself, something that seems to dog other plays in Wilson’s admirable project, an inability to overcome or fuse the stolid form with the fluid events and sometimes furtive shape of untold stories, folk history confronting the harshness of a society with a “fix” on the major social means of transmission. Wilson calls Joe Turner a blues play; the astringent taste of the blues crops up here and there. But it doesn’t premeate the action, or serve to reveal it.
JOE TURNER’S COME AND GONE
Through Dec. 14. $13.50 - $71. at the Roda Theater, 2015 Addison St. 647-2949. www.berkeleyrep.org.