Joe Turner’s Come and Gone

WHEN Through 2/25: Thu-Fri 8 PM, Sat 2 and 8 PM, Sun 2 PM

WHERE Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn

PRICE $15-$37

INFO 312-443-3800

Radio Golf

WHEN Through 2/25: Wed 7:30 PM, Thu 2 and 7:30 PM, Fri 8 PM, Sat 2 and 8 PM, Sun 2 and 7:30 PM

WHERE Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn

PRICE $20-$68

INFO 312-443-3800

August Wilson, who died in October 2005 at the age of 60, is arguably the most significant, ambitious dramatic chronicler of the conflict between destruction and transformation in American culture since Eugene O’Neill. Wilson’s ten-script, decade-by-decade cycle is focused on the African-American experience–white characters rarely appear–and the subject is always the way racism has affected African-American life; several plays end in black-on-black violence. But though all but one of these complex works are set in the Pittsburgh neighborhood where Wilson grew up, the Hill District, his theatrical universe is a semimagical place of ancient seers and inexplicable happenings.

The Goodman recently became the only theater in the country to have produced all ten of the plays in Wilson’s cycle. Now, as part of its current celebration of his work, it’s brought in Congo Square Theatre Company to perform Joe Turner’s Come and Gone in the Owen Theatre. It’s a vibrant production that celebrates Wilson’s legacy in more ways than one: before his death Wilson, a mentor for black theater artists, made Congo Square his artistic and financial beneficiary, and it’s the only theater to have received a bequest from his estate. Its ensemble members, including director Derrick Sanders, have done well with past Wilson productions, such as 2005’s Jeff-winning Seven Guitars, and they’re flat-out brilliant in this staging.

Radio Golf, now being performed by the Goodman on its Albert stage, is the final chapter in Wilson’s examination of 20th-century African-American life. Premiered at Yale Repertory in May 2005, it’s slated for a Broadway production later this year and should be seen by anyone interested in the completion of Wilson’s ouevre. But if you’ve never seen Wilson’s work, it’s better to invest the two and a half hours in a journey with Joe Turner.

In most of Wilson’s cycle, as in O’Neill’s plays, the individual stories told are more important than the classic structure of rising action and climax. The title Joe Turner’s Come and Gone comes from the W.C. Handy blues song, which figures in the story. Joe Turner (“Joe Turney” in some sources) was a real person, the brother of a Tennessee governor, who ran a racket around the turn of the 20th century in which black men were taken under various pretexts and put to work in prison camps. The play, set in 1911, is dominated by a character recently released from such forced labor: Herald Loomis, a dark, intense presence in a shabby black overcoat and hat that make him look like one of Beckett’s tramps. Loomis arrives one sunny morning at a bustling Hill District boardinghouse with his young daughter, Zonia, seeking his wife, Martha, who gave up on him during his bondage and went north.

The boardinghouse–a stopping place for blacks on their migrations northward run by the affectionately squabbling Seth and Bertha Holly–shelters many seekers. Seth believes he knows where Martha, a former boarder, can be found, but he’s not about to share that information with Loomis, who he says looks like he “killed somebody gambling over a quarter.” But Seth does rent him a room, and over the course of the play Loomis finds his bearings again as a proud soul and a man with a community. Construction worker and aspiring guitarist Jeremy Furlow (a rakish Daniel Bryant) is newly arrived from North Carolina and eager for action at the juke joints. Bynum Walker (a rumpled Allen Gilmore) is an eccentric shaman who dispenses herbs and advice to those seeking lost loved ones. Mattie Campbell, a young woman who’s had two babies die, seeks Bynum’s advice when her husband leaves her–and briefly becomes Jeremy’s lover, until the arrival of the worldly Molly Cunningham. Bynum himself seeks the “shining man,” a vision he believes contains the secret of life.

Each character responds to loss and responsibility toward the dead in a different way. A young boy in the neighborhood keeps a friend’s pigeons in coops even though the dying friend entreated him to release them. Molly refuses to do conventional work for a living because hard farm labor killed her mother. The play’s sole white character, Rutherford Selig, makes extra money on his river-scavenging trips by searching for lost people–a job that resonates with the careers of his grandfather, who piloted a slave ship, and his father, who sought runaway slaves.

For much of the play Loomis is stuck in time and grief. In one of the most intense scenes, he interrupts a Sunday-night juba by recounting a visit to an underwater “city of bones” (also mentioned in Wilson’s 2003 Gem of the Ocean) representing all the Africans who died during the Middle Passage. This vision makes Loomis mourn anew his lost love and recent enslavement–unable to stand, he scuttles crablike across the kitchen floor, screaming in terror. It’s a riveting moment, and Javon Johnson as Loomis fully commits to it. On the lighter side, Taron Patton and Aaron Todd Douglas do memorable work as warmhearted Bertha and comically penny-pinching Seth.

Joe Turner’s Come and Gone is an intoxicatingly hopeful blend of history, mystery, myth, ribald humor, music, dance, and enduring faith in the ability to transcend loss. Radio Golf is about loss too–the loss of the black urban community that buoys Loomis in Joe Turner. Set in 1995, the play concerns the conflict between longtime friends and business partners Harmond Wilks and Roosevelt Hicks, who have plans to gentrify the Hill District by razing the house of a seer–Aunt Ester, now passed on–and building luxury condos. Obstacles arise when one of Wilson’s typical coots, Elder Joseph Barlow (a beguiling Anthony Chisholm), shows up claiming the house belongs to him. Swayed by housepainter Sterling Johnson (a scene-stealing John Earl Jelks), would-be mayoral candidate Wilks ends up on the side of the dispossessed–and at odds with Hicks, who’s forcefully pursuing various business opportunities with a silent partner who’s white.

There are only five characters in Radio Golf, and it’s rare that they all appear onstage at once; a sense of isolation is pervasive. David Gallo’s set is wonderful, a burned-out street that suggests remnants of earlier Wilson plays; a shuttered diner could be from Two Trains Running, devoted to the 60s.

Perhaps Wilson, who typically rewrote his plays extensively, would have made changes to Radio Golf if he hadn’t died a few months after its 2005 production. But as it stands, it’s the most conventional play in the cycle. Wilson’s sharp observational wit is still present, but the two friends’ attacks and counterattacks over do-gooderism versus selling out feel warmed over, and Kenny Leon’s staging is rather schematic. Still, even a minor Wilson work runs rings around the forgettable fare on most stages. His was a career that ended too soon, but while it lasted it was a hell of a ride.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Michael Brosilow, Eric Antoniou.