‘Joe Turner’s Come and Gone…’ and He Took The Magic With Him

Revelation. The impact of finally understanding the unseen forces that conspire to create our world. A reveal, made in a surprising fashion, usually leading to ecstasy or a heightened dramatic state. 

Revelation is the engine of Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, the second play in August Wilson’s Century Cycle. Yet, it is noticeably absent from this production.

In Wilson’s 1910 Pittsburgh, African-American descendants no longer have a direct connection to Africa’s healing lineages through Aunt Ester. Instead, they have begun to form their own practices, consisting of rootwork, hoodoo, and conjuremen. Bynum “he who binds,” is one of those conjuremen, and no one can seem to remember when he began living at the house, or where he was before they knew him. 

Tim Rhoze plays Bynum with quiet dignity, straight backed and swinging his large walking stick as if he owns the place. On the one hand, it is nice to see a mystic in Wilson’s world with his wits about him – this recurring character archetype’s mental state and social status deteriorates through the decades. Think of Gabriel from Fences  or Stool Pigeon from King Hedley II (1980s). 

Despite being well-acted, this production’s interpretation of Bynum, with all his purported spellwork, is incredibly ordinary. The most magic we get is a thunder clap and light shift. We don’t see him craft at powders and roots except for when he produces a small unremarkable bag. Even when the ensemble breaks out into the Juba, an African-American plantation dance that relies on body rhythms and is the predecessor to tap dance and step dance, it’s non-specific. The actors build in canon but there is a rhythm track under the dance. This renders the entire need for Juba – something performed in the absence of instruments – a bit moot. The dance also fails to demonstrate the alternate spiritual life of Black folks at that time outside of Christianity, so its disruption by a key character falls flat in the absence of stakes.

A.C. Smith (top) as Herald Loomis and Kylah Renee Jones as Zonia Loomis, in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. Photo by Liz Lauren.

Bynum is the glue that binds this play together, as well as its people, but I think the average audience member might be confused by his function. He is intrinsic to the journey of our main character, Herald Loomis. Herald is the kind of guy that well… looms. Specifically, and often, in doorways. A.C. Smith brings a sinister gravity to Herald Loomis, it’s a fun role in which to express his range since he’s such a great comedic actor too. Herald Loomis is certainly a younger man in the script, but there is something about A.C. that almost pulls it off. The biggest hitch is actually not his casting, but the casting overall. The age gaps between characters needed more consideration. 

There is a scene where Loomis catches a woman’s scent – seriously he says “I can smell you from here” – and proceeds to doggedly pursue her for the scene. The woman he pursues is the innocent Mattie Campbell, played by prolific actress and playwright Nambi E. Kelley, which will delight dedicated Chicago theatregoers. There is an age gap that manifests as a lack of chemistry, however I think if this casting had been met with dramaturgical and directorial specificity it would have functioned better. 

It is possible to track Loomis’ obsessions and motivations through the various spells cast in the play, something the audience doesn’t know but the creative team certainly should. His attraction is the result of a bind, and he is a man possessed, so a connection that may not make sense to us at first glace should actually make perfect sense in the world of the play. It would be interesting to see this wake up a kind of lust that feels out of place. If you acknowledge the magic woven in the script, behavior that seems out of character can actually work. Dramatically speaking the actors can play these roles, there is no reason to turn them down, because they are trusting directors to cast them in a mindful context. 

There is a reason Wilson wants Black designers and actors and teams on his shows. The Goodman is not exempt from this suggestion because he spent physical time there. I notice that the set design is a myriad of references from existing Wilson sets, imposed onto the set design from Gem of The Ocean. There was nothing original about it, from the floating chairs in the set, to the shadow play and upstage entrances, to the style of the kitchen / altar, to the abstracted illustration of the Pittsburgh stacks.  I was sitting there feeling I had seen this before, and it reminds me of productions I have worked on. It even had this same blue and brown palette that began to be popular in these productions about ten years ago – I know because I worked on a show that used this design style at that time.

Which brings me to the color palette of this production. I’m confused why old timey plays equate to a muted palette, as though Black life wasn’t always disruptively vivid. There are several lines about the color of dresses, and the dresses were beige or light pink, almost no color at all under stage lights. I think these dampened aesthetics prevent us from enacting the virility and aliveness in our own work. Why is Rutherford Selig so central?? There were Black artists on the creative team but representation is not the same as a majority. I unapologetically say it affects the work. For white institutions, these are period pieces that reflect a moment of Black life in time, rather than magical re-memberings that call you into yourself and lineage. They become living museums. 

Similar to a museum, this play doesn’t run short on tableaus, either. There is a critical reunion at the end of the play, and the character we have never gotten to meet, Martha (Shariba Rivers), is giving her heartfelt monologue upstage to Herald Loomis, who has been staged to stand still in a doorway. Rivers’ performance is emotionally dynamic, we just can’t see most of it. 

In fact, everybody is standing still in a perfectly formed tableau that doesn’t move unless you have a line. Shariba Rivers is one of the most talented actors Chicago has to offer and I recently associate directed her myself in Notes from the Field, so I cannot understand her lack of impact as anything other than a design and directorial problem. 

The lack of dynamics slowed the action to a standstill, preventing this from being a truly excellent play, despite its excellent actors, who do a good job finding moments of connection when they can. Lovers Mattie Campbell (Nambi E. Kelley) and Jeremy Furlow (a smooth-talking, easygoing Anthony Fleming III) have the cutest scene between them, the kind that you feel actors worked on in their free time. 

There are two small surprise delights in the play and they are the child actors! Harper Anthony is cheeky and has great comedic timing as the neighbor Reuben Mercer, and Kylah Renee Jones plays Herald Loomis’ curious and brave daughter with wide-eyed determination. 

Krystel V. McNeil plays the devastating seductress Molly Cunningham, and she makes short work of every man onstage. Dexter Zollicoffer is one of my favorite Wilsonites, he runs August Wilson’s text like butter and finds every note inside the jazz of the language. Anyone in scene with him is invited to match his tempo and playfulness, and the stagnant staging becomes more forgiving when the actors’ melody starts to really take off.

Joe Turner’s Come and Gone is a religious and ideological battle of wills, culminating in a final scene where Martha is reciting verse, and Bynum is working root, and Herald Loomis is exercising free will and showing a new path forward for Black people at this time – a liberated and self-determined one that would lead to the liberation movements of the 20s. Though the ending is dramatic, I don’t think these particular stakes are clear, and so the catharsis is missing for me. 

All that said, if you’ve never seen Joe Turner it is worth seeing. I appreciate The Goodman keeping these works alive, but I hope more attention can be paid to doing the work the way it was intended – with Black liberation, and not a white gaze at the center. 

Bias alert: I’ve assistant directed at this company, and I have collaborated in the past with several of these artists on Chicago productions of August Wilson’s work and elsewhere as noted.

Joe Turner’s Come and Gone is running at The Goodman Theatre, and was recently extended until May 19th.

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CAST
Harper Anthony (Reuben Mercer)
Anthony Fleming III (Jeremy Furlow)
TayLar (Bertha Holly)
Gary Houston (Rutherford Selig)
Kylah Jones (Zonia)
Nambi E. Kelley (Mattie Campbell)
Krystel V. McNeil (Molly Cunningham)
Tim Rhoze (Bynum Walker)
Shariba Rivers (Martha Loomis)
A.C. Smith (Herald Loomis)
Dexter Zollicoffer (Seth Holly)

CREATIVE
Director – Chuck Smith 
Associate Director/Choreographer/Intimacy Consultant – Cristin Carole
Set Designer – Linda Buchanan
Costume Designer – Evelyn Danner
Lighting Designer – Jared Gooding
Sound Designer and Composer – Pornchanok Kanchanabanca
Dramaturg – Neena Arndt
Stage Manager – Beth Koehler
Line Producers – Malkia Stampley and Adam Belcuore
Production Photographer – Liz Lauren

 

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