Reviewed by Judy Richter
The 13th Amendment outlawing slavery was ratified in 1865, but it didn't end oppression of black people. The late August Wilson makes that abundantly clear in "Joe Turner's Come and Gone," being staged by Berkeley Repertory Theatre. The second of Wilson's 10-play cycle covering black life during each decade of the 20th century, "Joe Turner" takes place in the Hill District of Pittsburgh in 1911. Seth Holly (Barry Shabaka Henley) and his wife, Bertha (Kim Staunton), own a boarding house that serves as a sort of way station for Southern blacks migrating North in search of greater opportunities. For $2 a week, boarders get their rooms plus two meals a day.
Their current tenants are anchored by an older man, Bynum Walker (Brent Jennings), who calls himself a binder of people and who helps troubled people by providing them herbs and powders he has concocted. Another tenant is young Jeremy Furlow (Don Guillory), who works on a highway project and who has an eye for the ladies. Recent arrivals are Mattie Campbell (Tiffany Michelle Thompson), who pairs up with Jeremy; and Molly Cunningham (Erica Peeples), a more independent soul.
The relative tranquility of their lives is disrupted by the arrival of Herald Loomis (Teagle F. Bougere), an ominous, brooding man in a long black coat and black hat. Accompanied by his young daughter, Zonia (Inglish Amore Hills alternating with Nia Reneé Warren), he says he's looking for his wife. He hasn't seen her for seven years, ever since he was conscripted into forced labor by the notorious Joe Turner. He asks the play's only white character, Rutherford Selig (Dan Hiatt), a traveling salesman and self-described finder of people, to find his wife.
Herald is a seriously troubled man, as becomes apparent one Sunday evening as the Hollys and their tenants enjoy a round of juba, rhythmic dancing and singing, after Sunday supper. Herald interrupts the joyful scene, describes his vision of bones walking on the water and suffers what appears to be a seizure. Bynum eases him through the crisis. Bynum says Herald is looking for his song, meaning that Herald needs to regain his self-confidence and look to the future instead of dwelling on the past. Herald's emotional journey gets him to that point at the end, thanks in part to an encounter with his wife, Martha (Kenya Brome).
The acting is solid except for the boy playing Reuben, a neighbor boy who befriends Zonia. Keanu Beausier, who alternates with Victor McElhaney, was difficult to understand at the reviewed performance. However, the direction by Delroy Lindo, who played Herald in the original 1988 Broadway production, is a bit slow in this already dialogue-heavy play. Design values are noteworthy with the set by Scott Bradley, lighting by William H. Grant III, costumes by Reggie Ray and sound by Cliff Caruthers. Despite the sometimes slow action in this production, "Joe Turner" remains a major work by a great playwright. It's especially interesting to see it again after seeing other plays in the cycle.