Honor Black History Month with a Theatrical Milestone

Joe Turneräó»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 youäó»re seated at the kitchen table listening in on characters’Œæconversations.

Joe Turneräó»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 Wilsonäó»s masterwork. It’s the perfect playŒæto honor Black History Month andŒæthe playwrightäó»s personal favorite.

Whatäó»s more, ŒæJoe TurnerŒæmarks the final play in American Stageäó»s annual staging of Wilsonäó»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,ŒæJoe Turner conveys undeniable authenticity, from its intimate exchanges and confrontations to the screen door creaks and biscuits you can all but smell in Berthaäó»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, Œæmonologues offerŒævibrant storytelling that conjure an AfricanŒæcultural tradition still vital today. TheirŒæcreativity and earthy realism entertain, enlighten and showcase the cast’sŒæprowess.

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 Turneräó»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 onŒægetting his old life back. ŒæAn unlikely turn of events ends the somber preacher’s search, andŒæredemption comes by looking inward instead.

Other boarding house dwellersŒæinclude a longtime resident Bynam, a prismatic “root doctor” who comes across as a mentor, an eccentric and clairvoyantŒæ(well played by Mujahid Abdul-Rashid). ŒæMore recent, Jeremy (smoothly interpretedŒæby 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 Œæand 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 theirξimperfect 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 joyousξBertha.

A sweet but forbidden budding romance lightens the playäó»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 äóìpeople finder.” The grandson of slave traders combines exploitative financial gain with moral rectification by helping people find loved ones.

Alexandria Crawford providesŒæa minor but majorly affecting role as Martha, Loomisäó»s estranged wife.

Still relevant today …

Joe Turneräó»s depiction of finding oneäó»s identity and place in the world underscores the human condition writ large. Especially with regard to the black experience.

Today, we deal withŒæoppressive law enforcement and the privatized prison system. Recently, Douglas Blackmonäó»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, Œæthe everyday peace of mind of countless African-Americans still languishesŒæin the loophole in the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. äóìNeither 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.äó

Wilson said that he didnäó»t write for black or white audiences, but about the black experience in America: äóìand contained within that experience, because it is a human experience, are all universalities.äó

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

äóìThey tell me Joe Turneräó»s come and gone

Ohhh Lordyäó_

They tell me Joe Turneräó»s come and gone

Ohhh Lordy

Got my man and goneäó


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