Helmer Phylicia Rashad delivers a splendid revival of August Wilson’s “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” at L.A.’s Mark Taper Forum. Thesps Keith David, Glynn Turman and John Douglas Thompson take a radically different approach to each of their assignments on stage, and that’s as it should be, but Rashad weaves those performances into a seamless acting tapestry, along with notable work from supporting players, that makes this a boarding house worthy of repeated visits.
In a great, big, broad and comic perf, David is the muscle of the show. As Seth Holly, proprietor of the boarding house in Wilson’s famed Hill District of Pittsburgh, circa 1910s, he’s the ultimate adaptor. When a boarder (Gabriel Brown) complains of extortion on the job, Seth chastises him for not playing along to keep his job. But it’s a pragmatism that’s tempered with a well-earned skepticism, which David uses for great comic effect.
It’s been said that all actors, at their core, are either lyrical or animalistic. Together, Turman and Thompson run that acting gamut. With his voodoo-esque practices, Turman’s Bynum Walker is the show’s spirit. Wilson introduces Bynum with an aria of a monologue about meeting a man who explained the secret of life to him. When Turman sings that monologue, his spirit catches fire and lights up “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” until its final curtain.
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Wilson obviously expected modern audiences to know all about Joe Turner. He doesn’t appear in the play, but Bynum makes one of his spiritual guesses that one of the boarding house’s newer tenants, Herald Loomis, had been kidnapped by Turner, brother of Tennessee’s governor, and forced to work on his chain gang for seven years. Thompson’s Loomis is the show’s pain. And it’s the raw, ugly pain of a deeply wounded lion.
Wilson’s play is about identity, the identity of African-Americans as they fled the south for the north. But it’s also a lot about money: the $2 a week that Seth charges his tenants, the “whatever you’ve got” that Bynum charges for his charms, and the easy way in which the play’s one white character, Rutherford Selig (Raynor Scheine), talks about his family’s transition from slave catchers to people finders. Scheine’s matter-of-fact delivery is chilling.
Wilson wasn’t as adept at writing his female characters, who are more than a little reactive. Fortunately, Vivian Nixon’s prostitute knows her full worth. And as Seth’s wife, Lillias White leaves no doubt who’s the real force behind the success of this boarding house.