The late August Wilson's remarkable ten-play cycle, one set in each decade, has played Bay Area stages from the American Conservatory Theatre to the San Jose Rep. San Francisco's Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, which has done many of Wilson's plays, revived Fences this March. TheatreWorks just gave the last play in the cycle, 2005's 1990s-themed Radio Golf, its regional premiere in Mountain View, closing the week Joe Turner's Come and Gone opened at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Somehow, Turner marks the first time in its forty-year history that the Rep has staged one of Wilson's plays.
The first decade or two can easily be excused, because his first play Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, the only one not set in Pittsburgh, didn't come along until 1984. However belated, Berkeley Rep's first foray into Wilson's work is a stunner, tightly directed by Delroy Lindo, who was nominated for a Tony Award as Herald Loomis in the original 1988 Broadway production, with especially sharp comic timing and some knockout performances.
With a towering staircase and an imposing old stove, the marvelous kitchen and sitting room set by Scott Bradley, who designed the original Broadway production, is also interestingly similar to Michael Carnahan's 2006 A.C.T. set for Gem of the Ocean, Wilson's 2004 play set in 1904. Cliff Carruthers' sound design and Dwight Andrews's musical direction bring a lot to the table, from passing trains in the background to the tantalizing bits of blues between scenes. Reggie Ray's costumes emphasize both the 1911 setting and the gulf between backgrounds, from overalls to high-necked Sunday dresses.
Where the production gets bogged down on occasion are the parts that are especially hard to pull off to begin with. Wilson gives the characters long speeches, more like poetic arias, that are delivered well here, but there's no getting past the fact that the world of the play seems to come to a halt to accommodate them. The stomping, clapping, joyfully shouting "juba" dance around the table is fantastic, but the vision-filled fits of Herald Loomis that follow are pitched awfully high, with him flopping around in desperate pratfalls.
Loomis is played by Teagle F. Bougere, who starred in last year's Blue Door, Lindo's Berkeley Rep directorial debut. Bougere's Loomis is wary and intense, with an imposing stare and exaggeratedly deep voice bordering on a woof. At times he's almost like a vaudeville character, walking wide and low in an oversize black suit, although his stooped stance might represent his claim that his legs "won't stand up." He also seems awfully young for a guy who's been through years of hard living, searching across the country for the wife he hasn't seen in ten years. He's accompanied by daughter Zonia, portrayed with sweet tentativeness by Nia Reneé Warren in rotation with Inglish Amore Hills, who strikes up a romantic friendship with neighbor boy Reuben, a shrewd Keanu Beausier alternating with Victor McElhaney.
Former San Francisco Mime Trouper Barry Shabaka Henley is superb as Seth Holly, the curmudgeonly boardinghouse owner. Although he complains about superstitious mumbo-jumbo and the suspiciously hard-eyed newcomer, Seth also is obviously good-hearted, especially when palling around with longtime resident Bynum Walker. Kim Staunton exudes subtle strength as Seth's peacemaker wife Bertha, the rock of the household who's getting spread too thin. Brent Jennings's easygoing and talkative mystic Bynum is a comfortable fixture in the house, digging into the homemade biscuits and singing to himself when he's not conducting rituals with chickens in the yard and "binding" people to each other.
Dan Hiatt is also very much at ease as Rutherford Selig, the only white character (who also pops up in Gem of the Ocean), a traveling peddler and "people finder." His father used to hunt down escaped slaves, and now the son helps free African Americans find their misplaced loved ones with unapologetic equanimity. Like everyone else in the play, he uses the N word without thinking anything of it.
Don Guillory is bursting with energy as boarder Jeremy Furlow, a boisterous and charming young ladies' man. Erica Peeples is a stunner as Molly Cunningham, stylishly dressed and exuding confidence, determined to use men up so she won't feel used again, and Tiffany Michelle Thompson makes a reserved and fragile Mattie Campbell, the woman who's always left behind. Kenya Brome embodies an entirely different depth of reserve as the late-arriving Martha Loomis, a seemingly well-earned, haunted sobriety.
The play takes its name from W.C. Handy's "Joe Turner Blues" about a Tennessee governor's brother who captured free black men to work for him in unpaid press-gangs. That's also a plot point in the play, along with general themes of rural Southern African Americans moving to big cities in search of work and of the uneasy relationship between Christianity and the older African spirituality that was taken away from them but never quite forgotten. It's a lot to tackle in two and a half hours, but Lindo and his cast never make it feel like hard labor so much as a labor of love.
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