note: entire contents copyright 2004 by Carl A. Rossi
Bynum Walker … Minister Joe Lee Baker-Bey
Bertha Holly … Dosha Ellis Beard
Seth Holly … Frank A. Shefton
Rutherford Selig … Jeff Phillips / Jeff Gill
Jeremy Furlow … Mugisha Feruzi
Herald Loomis … David Curtis
Zonia Loomis … Nicole Brathwaite / Faylis Matos
Mattie Campbell … Tiffanye Threadcraft
Ruben Scott … Charles Edwards / Emanuel Riggins
Molly Cunningham … Simone St. John
Martha Loomis … Ramona Alexander
Should you attend the current Huntington production of GEM OF THE OCEAN followed by JOE TURNER’S COME AND GONE courtesy of Up You Mighty Race, you will have sat through the first two installments, decade-wise, of August Wilson’s nearly completed play-cycle on the African-American experience from the 1900s to the present day. GEM OF THE OCEAN is an autumnal prologue, more farewell than hello, kept afloat by its leading lady’s serene presence; JOE TURNER’S COME AND GONE is Mr. Wilson at his most inspired and Up You Mighty Race, a company new to me, delivers the year’s most satisfying bread and butter, yet --- fresh, warm and sweet --- at times becoming excellent cake.
Despite his critical acclaim and numerous awards, Mr. Wilson’s first three plays in the cycle are still his best: MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM (1920s) is raw and jazzy, with its clashes between black and (onstage) white folk; FENCES (1950s) is akin to DEATH OF A SALESMAN in its husband/father’s downfall; JOE TURNER’S COME AND GONE (1910s), set in Pittsburgh, is cut from fable’s cloth (along with that city, GEM and JOE TURNER share the white peddler Rutherford Selig, who doubles as a “People Finder”). All three plays can stand on their own; each has its own look and feel with Mr. Wilson testing his wings (MA RAINEY), soaring to majestic heights (FENCES) and coming back down an artist (JOE TURNER), his unique blend of poetry and realism beautifully balanced, throughout; his later entries are dutiful children, lining up one behind the other; their slender frames well-padded lest they be born one-acts rather than full-length plays.
JOE TURNER'S COME AND GONE takes place in Seth and Bertha Holly’s boardinghouse, an apt symbol of a people’s rootlessness as the great migration from the South to the North has begun in earnest. Seth, the offspring of freeborn parents, is ever watchful of his boarders’ morals and their rent when due --- he is ever going on about the Southern niggers (his phrase, not mine) who haven't a clue about how to make it, up North; Bertha, never far from her oven, has put up with Seth's orneriness for twenty-seven years (their good-humored bickering, so faultlessly drawn, could easily be overlooked but is essential, atmospheric background). Their current boarders are the mysterious old Bynum, who “binds” people together with his magic, and Jeremy Furlow, a recent arrival who plans his future around his guitar; two contrasting women, Mattie Campbell and Molly Cunningham, come to board, both of them turning Jeremy’s impressionable head. Herald Loomis, an ominous man in black, enters with his daughter Zonia, looking for his wife Martha after spending seven years of enforced labor on Joe Turner’s chain gang, down South; Herald hopes that finding Martha will free him from his wandering alienation (he is not unlike a returning war veteran, trying to take back the life he once knew). The play begins and ends with blood but in ritual, not violence. A lovely, haunting play, this, and in Herald Mr. Wilson has summed up an era’s race free from the shackles of the body but not of the soul, struggling towards self-worth but still several generations below its surface.
Up You Mighty Race may not rival the Huntington in star names and its aura of an Event, but it has the better script and not surprisingly the better production. GEM is a drawn-out evening, dwarfed in its cavernous setting (I still say the Huntington should have staged it in its new BCA digs); Up You Mighty Race’s offering at the Massachusetts College of Art is scaled in proportion to its actors (the monologues tend to gravitate to center stage, and Molly’s iconography is whoredom from the silent screen era; otherwise, all is well). Aside from its Solly Two Kings, the Huntington cast, as directed, does not convince as turn-of-the-century colored folks (again, I ask, whatever happened to “period” acting?); in contrast, Akiba Abaka has directed JOE TURNER with such nostalgic, down-home sincerity that when Bertha’s fried chicken is praised, one sniffs in vain for the aroma. Ms. Abaka’s ensemble, be it repertoire or assembled, is a pleasure from top to bottom, each with his or her own music, its principle points being Frank A. Shefton who garners affectionate laughter as the irascible Seth, the Minister Joe Lee Baker-Bey who brings dignified sense and gravity to Bynum (in other hands the character could have become a tiresome crank), and, especially, David Curtis, a handsome, strapping man who fills his Herald Loomis to the brim and over with Old Testament fury flowing from his heart’s isolation. Tiffanye Threadcraft makes an amusing, huffy rag doll out of Mattie and Ramona Alexander is affecting in the eleven o’clock role of Martha, her character’s religious fervor clashing with emotions as buttoned-up as Herald’s are in full flood. Peter Calaio has designed a bare-boned, broom-clean boardinghouse done up in earth colors that is just right and Tim Sawicki has subtly lit it so that sepia-toned tableaus blend with passages of hallucinogenic clarity.
In short, a recommended evening. No doubt I’ll seek out other productions of JOE TURNER’S COME AND GONE (it’s my favorite in Mr. Wilson’s cycle, thus far) but should they elude me I’ll always have the memory of seeing it performed by Up You Mighty Race --- and performed right.
HELP SAVE BOSTON’S HISTORIC GAIETY THEATRE!