Detroit Rep’s ‘Joe Turner’ powerful and compelling
By Kent Straith
“Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look…”
Another playwright from another country in another time wrote those words, but they immediately sprung to mind when Will Bryson stepped onstage in the persona of Herald Loomis in Detroit Repertory Theatre’s fantastic production of August Wilson’s “Joe Turner’s Come And Gone”. Bryson is a powerfully built, physically imposing man, so the lean and hungry part may not be accurate, but from the moment he appears with a deeply haunted, half crazed look in his eyes, the viewer has a hint of some of the things this man has seen, and an instinctive feeling for the fork in the road that the climax of this story (still two hours away) may take.
But, let’s not get ahead of ourselves…
Bryson’s Loomis and his pre-teen daughter Zonia are only two of the menagerie of characters populating Seth and Bertha Holly’s boarding house in Pittsburgh of 1911. It’s a place like thousands of others in a nation still struggling to catch its breath a half century after the Civil War. Seth and Bertha are a couple who own a large home whose rooms rent for $2 per week…$3 if you want food. As Seth is constantly reminding us, he runs a respectable hostel for folks on the move or with nowhere else to go. “Your business is your business”, but he doesn’t want any trouble. Seth, here portrayed by screen and stage vet Antoine McKay, is an amiable, sprightly, impishly cantankerous friend to all, and his wife Bertha (Yolanda Jack) compliments him perfectly, offering a warm biscuit to anyone who finds themselves in their kitchen. Like Herald and Zonia, everyone who takes shelter in this home, needs a lot more than room and board.
‘Joe Turner’s’ is set in an unsettled time in America. The characters here are almost exclusively Black (as is true of most of Wilson’s work), but they were not slaves. Born “free” in a country that was politely or otherwise telling them they were still under the thumb of the white man. This led to a time called the Great Migration, when innumerable thousands of Black people fled the South, looking for their families, an honest day’s work…just some kind of foothold on which to build a life and an identity.
The cast of characters makes this a true ensemble piece with no true “lead”, but it’s anchored by the trio of Seth, Herald, and Bynum Walker, a somewhat mystical healer who is almost a priest to these people. If Seth’s energy is the motor that drives the show, and Herald’s quest is its heart, Walker, played here by Director Lynch Travis, is the show’s moral center. It takes a supremely talented and self-confident artist to not only direct himself, but to take on such a heavy, crucial role as Bynum Walker, but Travis knocks it out of the park. I also want to take a moment and pay special attention to set designers Harry Wetzel and Erin Wakeland, who under Travis’s direction, created a warm, intimate, richly appointed and detailed set that lets the audience know precisely where they are from the moment they enter the performance space. While knowing this isn’t true, you simply feel that the oven in the Holly home is hot and that the faucet really works, and it draws you in even before the curtain rises.
The story here is compelling, with sharp dialogue woven through and among the monologues. Herald Loomis and his little girl are travelling the country on foot, wagon, train…chasing after the wife and mother that disappeared nearly a decade earlier like she were the One Armed Man of a crime anthology series of days gone by. The rest of the cast is all strong and put in very fine work. From Dominik Alec Greyson as Jeremy, a young man looking for a way to really make a start in life, to Janai Lashon and Tayler Jones, the two women in his life, the experience and depth of these performances puts the stamp of quality on this production.
From a critical point of view, the only thing I found the least bit frustrating about this show is not a fault of this production, and that is that I believe when it was written, audiences may have been more familiar with the historical figure of Joe Turner and I found myself a little behind the 8-ball on something I feel like I should have been aware of. Turner is indisputably the villain of this piece, and never once appears on stage. Without giving away too much, Turner was the brother of the one time Governor of Tennessee…a chain gang boss who took the abolition of slavery in America as more of a loose guideline than actual law. Joe Turner is the man who destroyed the Loomis family, and put the haunted look in Herald’s eyes.
The majority of August Wilson’s life’s work was collection of ten plays about Black life in the 20th Century, all set in Pittsburgh in different times, and this show represents the 1910s. Other work in “the Pittsburgh Cycle” as this folio is known are The Piano Lesson, Fences, and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, all of which have been feature films. Wilson’s most devoted fan, one Denzel Washington, has committed the rest of his life to “making sure August is taken care of” and preserving Wilson’s work on film for everyone to see and learn from. That said, while there may someday be a movie that tells this story, I can’t find anything currently in development, so find your way to the Detroit Rep, and experience for yourself the highs and low, self discovery and redemption waiting in Joe Turner’s Come And Gone. You won’t regret it for a second.
(Joe Turner’s Come And Gone is playing at Detroit Repertory Theatre at 13103 Woodrow Wilson St in Detroit, now through March 3rd. Tickets are available at www.detroitreptheatre.com, or by calling the box office at 313-868-1347. Questions? Write to ‘email@example.com’)