Thursday, March 26, 2009

August Wilson's "Joe Turner's Come and Gone"

This work is a part of Wilson's 10-play cycle that explores the African American experience, decade by decade, over the course of the twentieth century. Wilson was born in 1945 and died in 2005. "Joe Turner" takes place in 1911, in Pittsburg, where most of the plays take an inhabitation and a name. The playwright's note gives a clear idea of his aims in this play:

It is August in Pittsburgh, 1911. The sun falls out of heaven like a stone. The fires of the steel mill rage with a combined sense of industry and progress. Barges loaded with coal and iron ore trudge up the river to the mill towns that dot the Monongahela and return with fresh, hard, gleaming steel. The city flexes its muscles. men throw countess bridges across the rivers, lay roads and carve tunnels through the hills sprouting with houses. From the deep and the near South the sons and daughters of newly freed African slaves wander into the city. Isolated, cut off from memory, having forgotten the names of the gods and only guessing at their faces, they arrive dazed and stunned, their hearts kicking in their chests with a song worth singing. They arrive carrying Bibles and guitars, their pockets lined with dust and fresh hope, marked men and women seeking to scrape from the narrow, crooked cobbles and the fiery blasts of the coke furnace a way of bludgeoning and shaping the malleable parts of themselves into a new identity as free men of definite and sincere worth.

Foreigners in a strange land, they carry as part and parcel of their baggage a long line of separation and dispersement which informs their sensibilities and marks their conduct as thy search for ways to reconnect, to reassemble, to give clear and luminous meaning to the song which is both a wail and a whelp of joy.

The poetry in this note appears too in the language of the play, a language which is justly described as "lyrical realism." There are passages of great and simple beauty that dignify the speakers without making them sound artificial or pretentious. Bynum Walker, a rootworker (i.e. a voodoo man, played by Roger Robinson), spoke piercingly, in a long monologue, of his encounter with "the shining man," and his longing to find him again. The poetry is balanced in the play by the more earthy speeches of wind-bag Seth Holly, and his good wife, Bertha, the owners of the boarding house where all the action happens.  The originality of language has also a structural function. When Martha Pentecost--the run-away wife whom Herald Loomis has been seeking for ten years, with their daughter in tow--finally appears and spouts Biblical cliches, quoting Psalm 23 at one point to the tormented man, she is seen for the voiceless woman that she is, unlike Loomis who has to work out his own salvation and learn to sing his own song.

Though the language of the play is striking, the structure is less satisfying. I can accept, and appreciate, the abrupt intrusion of the supernatural, when Loomis suddenly sees, and declaims, a vision of skeletons walking on water, and becoming flesh when they are cast on land. Bynum Walker's haunting vision of "the shining man" has prepared me for this more dramatic episode. But the late entry of a Bible-rattling Martha Pentecost throws the play's terms of argument into disarray. At no earlier point do we get the sense that individual salvation has to be won from a submissive and coercive Christianity. 

Instead, we have been engaged in a very human drama of love and abandonment, with various characters experiencing, or telling, first of one, and then of the other. The transience of relationships is matched poignantly with the transience of these newly-freed migrant lives. The only house in the play is the boarding house, which can only provide temporary, payment-by-the-week accommodations. Joe Turner, who forced Herald Loomis to work for him for seven slavish years, is not only a figure for the white slave-master, but he is also a figure for the inner drive that forces us to love and then leave. 

The production, directed by Bartlett Sher, was mounted by the Lincoln Center Theater, under the direction of Andre Bishop and Bernard Gersten. In 1907 David Belasco built the theater which he called Belasco Stuyvesant, and shorted to Belasco in 1910, the name it retains to this day. It is a beautiful old theater, with faded wall murals, column capitals that glow like lanterns, and small circles of stained glass in the ceiling, 

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