Honor Black History Month with a Theatrical Milestone

February 18, 2017 by JULIE GARISTO | PERFORMING ARTS
SEEKING HIS TRUTH: In the foreground,  Calvin M. Thompson (Herald Loomis) causes a stir as  Cindy DeLaCruz (Mattie Campbell), Jemier Jenkins (Molly Cunningham), Kim Sullivan (Seth Holly) and Mujahid Abdul-Rashid (Bynam Walker) look on.  Photo by Kara Goldberg.
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Joe Turner’s Come and Gone marks the final play in American Stage’s August Wilson cycle.

Joe Turner’s Come and Gone runs through Feb. 26. Most shows are sold out but last-minute standby seats are sometimes available. Visit americanstage.org or call (727) 823-PLAY for more information.

Some plays present big ideas. Others conjure a resonant mood through their haunting truths.

Then there are those that make you feel like you’re seated at the kitchen table listening in on characters’ conversations.

Joe Turner’s Come and Gone accomplishes all three virtues in equal measure.

With shows sold out through the end of February, American Stage has gifted theatergoers with an exceptional take on an August Wilson’s masterwork. It’s the perfect play to honor Black History Month and the playwright’s personal favorite.

What’s more,  Joe Turner marks the final play in American Stage’s annual staging of Wilson’s Century Cycle (aka Pittsburgh Cycle). It pinpoints the theater as only the 12th in the world to present all of the works.

Set in 1911, Joe Turner conveys undeniable authenticity, from its intimate exchanges and confrontations to the screen door creaks and biscuits you can all but smell in Bertha’s oven.

Helping us travel back in time, director L. Peter Callender gets kudos for judiciously guiding the performances and providing balance. He and scenic designer Scott Cooper, costumer Frank Chavez and the rest of the staging team (Rachel Harrison, Stephanie Gularte, Jerid Fox and Jim Sorensen) bring the realness.

Interlaced throughout,  monologues offer vibrant storytelling that conjure an African cultural tradition still vital today. Their creativity and earthy realism entertain, enlighten and showcase the cast’s prowess.

Wilson’s search for personal meaning

The Holly boarding house residents all seem to be searching for a sense of identity, a recurring theme in Wilson’s plays.

Joe Turner’s most pivotal moments bring into focus the searing pain of Herald Loomis (portrayed with visceral mastery by Calvin M. Thompson). The archetypal wanderer, who with daughter Zonia in tow (played by Bianca Rivera-Irions and Shelby Ronea), journeys to find his estranged wife.

Loomis’s backstory has pathos to spare. After being kidnapped into forced labor by a semi-mythical Joe Turner, he fixates on getting his old life back.  An unlikely turn of events ends the somber preacher’s search, and redemption comes by looking inward instead.

Other boarding house dwellers include a longtime resident Bynam, a prismatic “root doctor” who comes across as a mentor, an eccentric and clairvoyant (well played by Mujahid Abdul-Rashid).  More recent, Jeremy (smoothly interpreted by Satchel Andre) tries to seduce his way to happiness. The work-phobic musician preys on Mattie, a delicate woman stubbornly trapped by old values and naivete (Cindy De La Cruz in a stunning turn), and Molly, a jaded and opportunistic feminist in the making (deftly portrayed by Jemier Jenkins).

Through the play’s young single women, Wilson reveals an intriguing microcosm of female power and its abuses. Both Mattie and Molly seek value through their relationships with men. One defines herself by winning them over  and the other by using them. Ironically, it’s through the domesticated Bertha we see an actualized woman who’s neither intimidated nor controlled by her mate.

Which brings us to the landlords. By contrast, they represent souls free from inner turmoil. Seth and Bertha have reconciled with joy and resolve their imperfect fate. Kim Sullivan, a perpetual player in the Wilson plays at American Stage, delivers another knockout lead as the pragmatic, hardworking Seth. USF professor and esteemed actor Fanni Green endears with her turn as the nurturing, wise and joyous Bertha.

A sweet but forbidden budding romance lightens the play’s load. Boy next door Reuben (Elijah Dixon, Tyrese Pope) courts the precocious, obedient Zonia.

Richard Watson also delivers well on the oddball role of Selig, the “people finder.” The grandson of slave traders combines exploitative financial gain with moral rectification by helping people find loved ones.

Alexandria Crawford provides a minor but majorly affecting role as Martha, Loomis’s estranged wife.

Still relevant today …

Joe Turner’s depiction of finding one’s identity and place in the world underscores the human condition writ large. Especially with regard to the black experience.

Today, we deal with oppressive law enforcement and the privatized prison system. Recently, Douglas Blackmon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Slavery by Another Name, and the Oscar-nominated documentary 13th, give currency to the emotionally and physically scarred Loomis.

Whether we read the books and watch the documentaries of today or see Wilson plays,  the everyday peace of mind of countless African-Americans still languishes in the loophole in the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

Wilson said that he didn’t write for black or white audiences, but about the black experience in America: “and contained within that experience, because it is a human experience, are all universalities.”

Inspired by an old blues standard, as the Pulitzer-winning playwright and musician often tended to be, both Joe Turner and its haunting refrain will stay with you for days …

“They tell me Joe Turner’s come and gone

Ohhh Lordy…

They tell me Joe Turner’s come and gone

Ohhh Lordy

Got my man and gone”

 

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