Goodman Theatre

You don’t just watch Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. You come through it. Like Oedipus Rex and Macbeth, like The Iceman Cometh and Endgame, August Wilson’s transcendent play isn’t a narrative so much as a ritual. A cleansing ceremony. A baptism. A way to die and be reborn.

Definitely not a Christian way, though. Words like baptism may trigger visions of the Jordan River in anyone brought up around a Bible, but the image doesn’t hold here. On the contrary: Wilson’s vagrant heroes wash away the Western church–the church of that “great big old white man . . . your Mr. Jesus Christ,” as one of them says–and are born again into something at once more ancient and more thoroughly their own. That is, into their identities as black men. Into their historical and cultural and mystical and deeply traumatic identities as individual black Americans descended from slaves, descended in turn from the native black peoples of Africa.

The prime candidate for this sort of resurrection is Herald Loomis. A former church deacon from Tennessee, Loomis had a wife and newborn baby girl when he was arrested on a pretext and condemned to be one of “Joe Turner’s niggers.” According to a program note, Joe Turner was a well-connected white racketeer who would entrap black men, get them convicted, and then ship them south to work as virtual slaves. Loomis was captured in 1901; by the time he came out of captivity seven years later, his wife, Martha, had given up and gone North. Loomis took his daughter and set out in search of Martha–not to take her back, but only, he says, to “see her face so I can get me a starting place in the world. . . . I been wandering a long time in somebody else’s world. When I find my wife that be the making of my own.”

Loomis’s quest takes him to Pittsburgh, where he puts up at a boardinghouse lovingly if sometimes irascibly run by Seth and Bertha Holly. Among the Hollys’ boarders is Bynum Walker, an old man who keeps busy growing medicinal roots and performing strange ablutions with pigeon blood in the backyard. Walker prescribes his roots to cure certain rather elusive complaints, like lovesickness. But he’s no quack. In fact, he’s a latter-day shaman: An urban American tribal healer who bases his power on the “song” entrusted to him in a vision. “I had the Binding Song,” he explains. “I chose that song because that’s what I seen most when I was traveling . . . people walking away and leaving one another. So I takes the power of my song and binds them together. . . . Just like glue I sticks people together.”

It’s Bynum’s song, his wise and cunning shamanic guidance that enables Loomis not only to see his wife again, but–more important–to bind himself back to himself. Doctor that he is, Bynum helps Loomis bring his reborn baby Loomis into the world, washed in the blood of something like a lamb. For which service Bynum stands to achieve a rebirth of his own.

If I seem to be telling too much, it’s just because conventional dramatic surprises don’t really matter here. Joe Turner’s a ritual, after all–not a mystery. At least, not a mystery in the common theatrical sense. Anybody with even a little Joseph Campbell in his soul can see early on what needs to be done and who needs to do it. The power of Joe Turner lies in the unfolding.

As does the beauty. In a way, August Wilson’s work reminds me of David Mamet’s. Both writers share the same awareness of the essential grandeur of common talk. People like to say that Mamet simply transcribes the language of American hustle, but he actually heightens it, making a new poetic speech. Wilson does something similar with black dialects. His people are average and not average. They speak a kind of solemnified slang that suggests their dignity along with their poverty–their participation in a spiritually charged, ceremonial, and yet recognizably grubby world.

This peculiar diction is appropriate to Wilson’s vision, which is as large as or larger than that of any other American playwright working. With this script and others, Wilson is after nothing less than singing the song of what it means to be black in the United States.

What’s amazing is how close he’s come to succeeding. In Joe Turner, the song carries sweet dark resonances out of Africa. It’s a religious song, quoting a scripture of shared experience and featuring white people as something akin to the Gnostic Jehovah: a satanic power posing as God. But it’s also a personal song–what the undervalued black poet Etheridge Knight calls a “belly song,” a song of victory sung differently out of every person’s lips. Wilson’s achievement lies in his ability to let all these songs play out loud and in true unison.

And Jonathan Wilson’s achievement lies in his ability to direct the chorus with humor and a strong sincerity. Wilson’s direction has none of the anthropological condescension that spoiled his recent Court Theatre production of Wole Soyinka’s The Lion and the Jewel. At Court, backwoods African culture carried the stink of quaintness; here, African magic and mysticism are plain but authoritative facts. And the show flourishes as a result.

The cast is extraordinary, from Norman Matlock’s laser-eyed Bynum to Pat Bowie’s full-handed Bertha Holly and Jaye Tyrone Stewart’s no-bull Seth Holly. Susan Diane Payne suggests a charming reticence as the lovesick boarder, Mattie. Johnny Lee Davenport is broodingly intense, almost iconic as Loomis. As a one-time Pittsburgher, I was especially impressed by Michael S. Philippi’s set, which makes marvelous metaphorical use of the fact that many houses in that town are built on hillsides with one door at the bottom of the hill and another at the top.