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.