On a day that began with the first snowstorm of the season and ended with the city being covered by a sheet of ice, theater-goers braved the elements to attend Opening Night of August Wilson’s “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” presented by Plays & Players.
Directed by Daniel Student, “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” is possibly the most abstract of Wilson’s ten character driven plays, all set in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The action takes place in the boarding house of Bertha (Cherie Jazmyn) and Seth (James Tolbert) Holly, who charge their transient roomers $2.00 a week for clean and comfortable quarters and two meals a day. Among their tenants are the young and foolhardy Jeremy Furlow (Jamal Douglas) and the creepy “conjurer,” Bynum Walker (Damien Wallace), whose knowledge of roots and herbs can allegedly cure what ails you, and even get your wayward man to come back home.
Their mundane workaday lives are disrupted when the sullen, volatile and downright scary Herald Loomis (Kash Goins), wearing an overcoat in the middle of summer, shows up at the rooming house with his young daughter Zonia (Lauryn Jones) in tow. The physically imposing Loomis is looking for his wife Martha (Erin Stewart), whom he has not seen in seven years — since the day that he and several other Black men were arrested and put away by a man named Joe Turner. Seth is immediately skeptical, but when the kind-hearted, tolerant Bertha allows him to stay, Loomis hires Rutherford Selig (Bob Weick), a white man who claims to be a professional “people finder,” to locate his wife.
As is usually the case with August Wilson’s work, this is a wonderful ensemble piece, populated by rich and colorful characters. Jazmyn and Tolbert are completely comfortable in the pivotal roles of Bertha and Seth, providing a strong foundation for the production. Damien Wallace is quite captivating as the wise but quirky Bynum, who has convinced nearly everyone in the community that he really does have healing powers.
Kash Goins was riveting in the mentally challenging and physically taxing role of Herald Loomis, a king-sized powder keg who had everyone in the house tip-toeing around him.
Lauryn Jones and Brett Gray, the two young actors in the cast, were exceptional, with their whimsical portrayals in stark contrast to Goins’ weighty characterization. Jones was endearing as the timid but inquisitive Zonia, and Gray, who has an undeniable gift for comedy, absolutely sparkled in the role of Reuben, Zonia’s trusted and valued friend. The chemistry between them was sweet, innocent and believable.
In the directorial department, there were problems with the pacing of the production, with the action nearly slowing to a standstill on more than one occasion, and the actors seeming to “vamp” in places. Even so, August Wilson’s skillful use of everyday situations juxtaposed with complex characters managed to keep the audience engaged.
Simultaneously celebrating 100 years in existence and three years as a professional theater, Plays & Players, which began as a community theater, made a wise choice in presenting this thought-provoking piece by an American master. “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” runs through February 4. For tickets, call 1 (800) 595-4TIX, or visit www.playsandplayers.org. Plays & Players is located at 1714 Delancey Place.
His mother told him his first stage appearance was as one of the seven dwarfs in a kindergarten play.
And although Francois Battiste can’t remember that play, he does remember high school and playing Seth in “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” by August Wilson.
Now here he is back again playing in August Wilson’s “Seven Guitars,” running through Oct. 7 at People’s Light and Theatre in Malvern.
“Seven Guitars” is set in May of 1948 in the Hill District of Pittsburgh where Wilson was born and raised, and all of the action takes place in the backyard of a house shared by several of the characters in the play.
The play centers around Floyd Barton, a blues guitar player on the threshold of success. Wilson crafts the story as a memory play and we begin after Floyd’s funeral and then flashback to events leading to his death. Throughout the play, characters battle with questions of ambition, love, death, heritage, faith, and individual as well as cultural legacies as all of them struggle to achieve their dreams and find their place in the world.
“I play Canewell, one of Floyd’s closest friends for the majority of the play,” Battiste explains. “As a rule, when you play a character you have to bring yourself to that character and align yourself with his identity so you can understand and hopefully relate to him.”
Battiste thinks doing that is very important to bring the character to life. “I think it’s extremely important to personalize your character and find yourself in his circumstances so that you can marry that to what the character is and does.”
Originally planning on becoming a newscaster, this actor says he wasn’t sure he wanted to be an actor until he was ready to graduate from college and figure out some way to make his way in the world. And once he decided acting was for him, he went on to study his craft at Juilliard in New York.
His studies led to many premiere roles such as “Prelude to a Kiss” on Broadway, “The Good Negro” off-Broadway which led to an Obie Award, several roles in Shakespeare in the Park and others. He’s also been seen on TV in such productions as “Person of Interest” and “Are We There Yet?” And on film in “Delivering the Goods,” “Men in Black III” and others.
“Working on and being awarded an Obie for Tracey Scott Wilson’s ‘The Good Negro’ was certainly a highlight for me,” Battiste says. ‘Actually I love doing it all - stage, film, TV. Of course, my heart craves the stage but my pocket book desires TV and film.”
Adding that the stage is an actor’s medium, he does acknowledge that “film and television have their own obstacles, but present different things you can’t find elsewhere and give you an opportunity to exercise different muscles — necessary for every actor.”
“Seven Guitars” is a celebration of the community, but also the struggles of individuals in their search for the American dream. While that search is important, Battiste offers his own advise for one’s future.
“For that I often quote Shakespeare who says ‘To thine own self be true.’ Certain things you plan for your future are not really choices but a duty if you’ve been given certain gifts. You have to pay attention to those gifts and work with them as best you can.”
For times and ticket information, call (610) 644-3500.