August Wilson was arguably the premier chronicler of the African-American story onstage. “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” is one of his Pittsburgh Cycle, 10 plays that tell the wide-ranging history of African-Americans decade by decade across the 20th century.
Two plays in the series earned Wilson the Pulitzer Prize: “Fences” in 1987 and “The Piano Lesson” in 1990. “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” earned the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Play in 1988, and it’s set in the second decade of the century.
The play challenges the audience on several fronts. It stays true to the dialects of 1911, which (as in a Shakespearean production) requires the viewer to adapt to unfamiliar lingual cadences. The plot is driven by dialogue, not action. It presents a slice-of-life characterized by a stream of characters who flow through a boardinghouse in Pittsburgh’s Hill District. Some are well drawn; others fulfill stereotypes.
The play juxtaposes the industrialized North against the newly freed South. The South provides the drifters, who seek room and board ($2 a week!) at Seth and Bertha’s boardinghouse. That couple, raised in the free North, has been married for 27 years and provides an anchor for the other characters.
The two represent love, stability, freedom and kindness. Seth is both an entrepreneur and a busybody, turning the stereotype of female gossip on its head. As played by Sidney Horton and Lillie Oden, they have a comfortable chemistry and infectious good humor.
The script describes long-term guest Bynum Walker (the well-cast Willie J. Stratford Jr.) as a “root worker.” He is more than that to the play. As a practitioner of voodoo, he’s a “binder of what clings,” which means he can bring people together, but only if that’s meant to be. He is the equivalent of Shakespeare’s fools, a philosopher masked as an eccentric.
When Herald Loomis (Jonavan Adams) arrives with a prepubescent daughter in tow, his brooding countenance casts a shadow on the house. He is searching for his wife. When his story is revealed, it is haunting and terrible.
Director Corlis Hayes could have fine-tuned Wilson’s overwrought script. Two scenes feature children; they are darling, but their dialogue adds nothing to a long play packed with narrative.
Acts I and II both end with Herald in the throes of a cacophonous fit. Both scenes are emotionally significant but lose impact due to length. The dialogue in them is simultaneously delivered by two characters and only 50 percent understandable.
The treatment of women is fascinating, as is the attitude toward the play’s only white man. The women’s backstories portray men as unfaithful and callous. Both share their beds freely, and no one judges them for that, an interesting perspective on life in 1911.
Tom Scott plays a white peddler who sells wares made by black men, but whose heritage includes smuggling slaves from Africa and catching escaped slaves for plantation owners. Yet he is welcomed at the boardinghouse on equal terms with everyone else.
‘Joe Turner’s Come and Gone’
CPCC Theatre does August Wilson’s drama about a Pittsburgh boardinghouse in 1911, where all the characters have some connection to slavery.
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday.
WHERE: Pease Auditorium, 1201 Elizabeth Ave.
RUNNING TIME: 70 minutes.
DETAILS: 704-330-6534 or tix.cpcc.edu.