April 18, 2009

A Misguided "Joe Turner's Come and Gone"

Back in December, when Lincoln Center Theater first announced that it had tapped Bartlett Sher to direct its revival of August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, some people questioned whether a white director could do justice to this installment of Wilson’s 10-part cycle of plays that chronicle the African-American experience. (Click here to read Wall Street Journal critic Terry Teachout’s take on the controversy.) I figured why not, so long as the director is talented, which the Tony Award-winning Sher clearly is. Now, after having seen the production that opened at the Belasco Theatre this week, I’m having second thoughts.

Each of Wilson’s plays takes place in a different decade of the 20th century and Joe Turner’s Come and Gone is set in 1911. It focuses on the children of freed slaves who have migrated north to find a new identity for themselves. It is also my favorite of his works.

I think I love the play because it reminds me so much of my grandmother and her siblings who were part of that same exodus knows as the Great Migration. The original production of Joe Turner, which opened in 1988, brilliantly captured their sustaining belief in the supernatural, which sometimes frightened me; their love of humor which always entertained me; and the innate poetry in the way they spoke. It was directed by Lloyd Richards, the African-American director who brought the original production of A Raisin in the Sun to Broadway in 1959 and who eventually went on to become dean of the Yale School of Drama and head of the National Playwrights Conference at the Eugene O'Neill Center

August Wilson felt strongly about having black people direct his plays. And Richards, who discovered Wilson when the unknown writer submitted a script to the O’Neill conference, directed and helped shape the first six in the cycle. When the two men fell out in 1996, the black directors Marion McClinton and Kenny Leon were tapped to bring Wilson’s work to the stage.

Indeed the playwright felt so strongly about the ethnicity of his collaborators that when Hollywood producers tried to turn his Tony and Pulitzer-winning play Fences into a movie, Wilson refused to sell it to them unless they agreed to hire a black director. No movie has yet been made. "We cannot allow others to have authority over our cultural and spiritual products," Wilson later declared during the course of a highly-public debate with the critic Robert Brustein over the role of blacks in the theater.

Sher’s production is skillful and at times entertaining (the major critics have raved) but for me it lacks the essential soul of the play. Instead, it’s all shiny surface (at times, alas, literally) with too little feeling for the deep-rooted emotions that drive its characters. His work here is too literal and earthbound for a writer as intensely metaphorical and metaphysical as Wilson.

Joe Turner’s plot centers around a Pittsburgh boarding house and the people who live there. One resident is Bynum Walker, one of Wilson’s trademark conjure men, and the other is Herald Loomis, a mysterious new arrival who travels with his young daughter and says he is looking for his missing wife. Part of Sher’s problem may rest in his casting choices. There are very nice turns by Ernie Hudson and LaTanya Richardson Jackson as the boarding house owner and his wife. But they represent the prose of Joe Turner and the success of the play rises or falls on the more poetic characters Bynum and Herald.

In the 1988 production, Ed Hall, a character actor Richards had known since Hall played the tiny part of one of the movers in A Raisin in the Sun, brought a transcendent mysticism to Bynum and Delroy Lindo imbued Herald with a deep sense of wounded menace. But while Roger Robinson’s Bynum is emotionally solid and Chad L. Coleman’s Herald appropriately brooding, neither man is imposing enough, at least they weren't at the performance my buddy Bill and I attended. They are good actors but they needed more guidance from their director than he seems to have been able to give.

I’ve read that Wilson and Sher knew one another from having lived in Seattle at the same time but given Wilson’s views on who should direct his plays, I’m not sure Sher would have been given a shot at Joe Turner if the playwright, who died from liver cancer in 2004, were still alive. I’m still not ready to say that no white director should be given the chance to direct a play by and about black people. But I will say that in this case, I don’t think they had the right man for the job. I will also say that Joe Turner remains my favorite Wilson play, is a major contribution to the American theatrical canon and a work that, even in a flawed production, every theater lover ought to see.

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