With its joyous group dance, invocation of African spirituals, and ritualistic bloodletting, August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone has enough energy and divine spark to tear down walls. So in this bold and beautifully atmospheric revival, director Bartlett Sher (and set designer Michael Yeargan) simply didn’t build any walls.
Clearly, Sher is a man who likes a challenge; recall his work on last season’s enchanting South Pacific at Lincoln Center — less a revival than a resuscitation. The haunting, collage-like Joe Turner — which takes its title from an old blues song — is the playwright’s most complex and most spiritual drama; it represents the second entry in Wilson’s 10-work, decade-by-decade account of 20th-century African-American life. (For those keeping track, Joe Turner — which is set in 1911 — falls between Gem of the Ocean, the 1900s’ play, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Piano Lesson; it was, however, the fourth play Wilson completed.)
The action in Joe Turner happens in the Pittsburgh boarding house owned by Seth and Bertha Holly. Bertha (LaTanya Richardson Jackson, exuding warmth) runs the kitchen, doling out fresh biscuits every morning and fried chicken every Sunday; Seth (Ernie Hudson) runs his mouth, particularly on the subject of ”ignorant” and ”foolish-acting niggers,” like his young lodger Jeremy (Andre Holland). ”That boy done carried a guitar all the way from North Carolina,” Hudson blusters. ”What he gonna do with that guitar? This is the city!” But what really throws Seth into a tizzy is the arrival of the tight-lipped, black-cloaked Herald Loomis (Chad L. Coleman), a man who ”done seen some things he ain’t got the words to tell you.” Wilson eventually gives him the words in a paralyzing scene filled with Old Testament imagery, one that Wilson recalled in this way: ”When I wrote that I thought, ‘OK, that’s it, if I die tomorrow I’ll be satisfied and fulfilled as an artist.’ ”
The hulking Coleman (perhaps best known as Cutty, the boxer, on HBO’s The Wire), regrettably, is not entirely up to the task. Admittedly, he has what’s surely the most taxing male role in the Wilson canon — his Act One-ending monologue is a doozy, as is the final scene in which his religiously bereft character meets his long-lost missionary wife (Danai Gurira). He puts up one helluva fight, but he’s overwhelmed by the Biblical imagery and the sheer force of Wilson’s language…unlike, for example, the sensational Roger Robinson, who plays Bynum, the aged rootworker. ”Just like glue, I sticks people together,” he says, explaining his name. Bynum is the show’s spiritual center, and the grizzled, raspy-voiced Robinson has us rapt from the moment he begins the tale of his ham-handed daddy and describes his own search for the ”shiny man.” It’s up to Bynum to elicit from Loomis the song that’s gone missing from his life — and does he ever. When we finally hear it, it comes with, as Wilson wrote in the play’s introduction, ”a wail and a whelp of joy.” A-
(Tickets: Telecharge.com or 212-239-6200)