- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 8, 2008

If you are planning one theater outing this spring, it should be to drop into the Kennedy Center a time or 10 to see the staged readings of August Wilson’s cycle of plays eloquently detailing the 20th-century experience of black Americans decade by decade.

If Thursday night’s fervent staging by director Todd Kreidler of “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” is any indication, the quality of the readings and the fierce dedication of the actors to Mr. Wilson’s work are unmatched.

The staged-reading format was adopted so the Kennedy Center could economically produce all 10 plays in Mr. Wilson’s cycle while still attracting top-notch actors and directors. The cost-effective format sacrifices a certain smoothness and polish in line readings as well as some production values in exchange for an increased appreciation of and concentration on Mr. Wilson’s words and poetry.

“Joe Turner,” written in 1984 and produced on Broadway in 1988, was one of Mr. Wilson’s favorite plays. The story is set in a Pittsburgh rooming house in 1911. The scars of slavery — some visible, many unseen — are still raw as a disparate collection of boarders try to get along and make a place for themselves in the North.

Mr. Kreidler’s staged reading (which features well-turned-out costumes by Reggie Ray and a panoramic black-and-white backdrop by David Gallo) includes the opening stage directions, read by an actor: “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.”

Two such people are Seth Holly (Eugene Lee), the proprietor, and his wife, Bertha (LaTanya Richardson Jackson, the real-world spouse of actor Samuel L. Jackson). Seth is benefiting from the boom years of the Pittsburgh mills, working the night shift to keep up with the demand and forging pots and pans on the side. Bertha fusses over her by-the-rules husband and the various boarders, dispensing hot food and no-nonsense advice.

Into this “respectable” house walks Herald Loomis (Russell Hornsby), a glowering, hatted figure in an overcoat who is accompanied by his daughter Zonia (Dominique Ross). Fresh off seven years on Joe Turner’s chain gang, Herald is searching for his wife, Martha (Rosalyn Coleman). He is also searching for himself — or, as the shamanistic boarder Bynum Walker (John Beasley) calls it, “trying to find your own song.”

“Joe Turner” speaks to you. In soliloquies so poetic they caress your ears like the best haircut you’ve ever had, the play talks of lonely women tumbling into foolish choices, of hollow men itching to be filled up — with faith, with flesh, with hard work that will take them up and out of themselves, if only for a time.

In its essence, Mr. Wilson’s play speaks of a people caught between new freedoms and new ways — and not knowing which way to go. Yes, there are mood-breaking slip-ups as the actors lose their places in the scripts they hold in their hands like Bibles. Yet it is the words that count, the words you hear — words that hang in the air like wood smoke, words that decipher what is written across our hearts.

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WHAT: “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” by August Wilson

WHERE: Terrace Theater, John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

WHEN:Today and March 30.

TICKETS: $65

PHONE: 202/467-4600

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