When the cast explodes into a rowdy Juba in “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” their joyous, spirit-summoning dance suggests roots stretching back to African tribal movement and forward through tap and jazz right up to hip-hop. That same panoramic breadth is reflected in the characters themselves, their histories bound to the still-raw wounds of slavery while their hopes and destinies reach far into a future mapped out in ongoing struggle. August Wilson’s gift for storytelling has rarely been more beguiling than in this lyrical 1986 drama, and in his searing revival, director Bartlett Sher makes every note strong and true.
In shows like “South Pacific,” “The Light in the Piazza,” “Awake and Sing!” and “The Barber of Seville” at the Met, Sher and regular set-design collaborator Michael Yeargan have developed a signature visual style that weds naturalistic presentation to stylization and spatial poetry. That dual approach heightens the already lush textures of Wilson’s writing, in its traumatized depths, its mystical detours and its celebratory spiritual heights.
Yeargan creates kinetic art out of the assembly of a set, and then strips its elements away again to tighten our focus on the drama. That pattern works magnificently here. The play opens on an empty stage backed by a brooding sky and percussive thunderclaps as figures cross on their difficult journeys. Then, piece by piece, a window, a door, a hanging light fixture, a table, a staircase and a kitchen corner are flown in, transporting us to 1911 and to the Pittsburgh boardinghouse run by Seth Holly (Ernie Hudson) and his wife Bertha (LaTanya Richardson Jackson). It’s an arresting start that invites us into this homey world and makes us want to know these people.
The third play Wilson completed in his 10-part, decade-by-decade Century Cycle about the African-American experience, “Joe Turner” comes second in the series’ chronology, following “Gem of the Ocean” as it examines a people still settling into freedom, seeking to reclaim their identity.
There’s relatively little traditional plot — a troubled stranger arrives looking for the wife he believes abandoned him during his seven years of illegal servitude. But with its rivers of talk, discursive stories, wild flights of imagination and bone-chilling visions, this is a vibrant canvas in which every character makes a distinctive contribution to Wilson’s throbbing mosaic of life.
The key figures are Herald Loomis (Chad L. Coleman), the intense former deacon who’s been dragging his spindly daughter Zonia (Amari Rose Leigh) behind him for four years since his release as he searches for her mother; and hoodoo-practicing Bynum Walker (Roger Robinson), whose name comes from his talent for binding folks. “Just like glue I sticks people together,” says the old man, who is consumed by his own search for the secret of life.
The rest of the house’s residents may be less conscious of their search but they are no less driven by the need to reconnect with the world. Or, as Bynum tellingly describes it in the first of the play’s hypnotic monologues, they are looking to find their song.
Seth and Bertha are the most grounded of them. Born in the north of free parents, Seth makes pots and pans for white peddler Selig (Arliss Howard) but dreams of starting his own business. He has little patience for the former cotton-pickers flocking north, expecting a miraculous new life without sacrifice. Among them is girl-crazy Jeremy (Andre Holland), who pours out honeyed promises to coax naive Mattie (Marsha Stephanie Blake) out of her heartsickness. But Jeremy just as swiftly turns his attention elsewhere with the arrival of free-spirited beauty Molly (Aunjanue Ellis).
Like the seductive Jeremy but with far more substance to back up his allure, Wilson rolls these characters’ individual and intertwined tales into a bold, bluesy symphony, as rich in humor as it is in sadness. And Sher negotiates its many sinuous twists and radical tonal shifts with the fluidity of a master conductor.
Perhaps the most thrilling such movement is the switch from the exhilarating Juba near the close of act one to the terrifying trance of Herald’s journey back into the unspeakable pain of his own and his ancestors’ past. With Bynum’s shamanistic guidance, he conjures a vision of bones walking on water, directly connecting the scene to Aunt Ester’s invocation of the Atlantic graveyard of African slaves in “Gem of the Ocean.”
But the play’s ruminative pauses are every bit as gripping as its operatic crescendos: Selig tracing the evolution of his family’s role as “bringers and finders” of black people, or weighing his relationship with his horse against that with any woman; Bynum exhorting Jeremy to look at all of what a woman is and not just a part, opening the young man’s eyes to what a woman can make out of a man; Molly proudly outlining her lack of use for emotional attachment; taciturn Herald finally opening up about his capture; stoical Bertha doling out pragmatic consolation to Mattie.
The musicality and complex humanity of these and other passages give the play an almost overwhelming cumulative emotional power, with even some of its most easygoing banter underscored by roiling melancholy.
Singling out any member of the cast would be a disservice to the impeccable ensemble overall, their performances flawlessly tuned to the shape-shifting rhythms of Wilson’s dialogue. Likewise, the craft contributions are woven together into a seamless theatrical experience, from Catherine Zuber’s characterful costumes to Brian MacDevitt’s exquisite lighting to the rootsy guitar-picking of Taj Mahal’s score.
Once again proving himself a director of rare sensitivity, Sher has honored this extraordinary play with a production of piercing depth and shimmering beauty. Its voices continue to haunt the heart and mind long after Herald’s agonizing howl of hard-fought freedom, a resurrection in which Bynum, too, finds illumination.