'Joe Turner' shows up in fine form at Arena Players

January 15, 1993|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

"Joe Turner's Come and Gone" is the first play Arena Players has produced by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson. And though it was a little long in coming, the result is a tribute to this theater as well as to one of the most highly respected American playwrights of the past decade.

At the risk of being glib, "Joe Turner's Come and Gone" is about comings and goings. Or to put it another way, like much of Wilson's work, it's about accepting the past so you can get on with the future. Not only is this an appropriate theme for Arena Players -- which bills itself as the country's oldest continuously operating black theater -- but director Amini Johari-Courts and .. her largely accomplished cast have mounted one of the finest productions seen at this theater in recent memory.

Set in a Pittsburgh boardinghouse in 1911, "Joe Turner" is part of Wilson's decade-by-decade chronicle of the black American experience. In this case, the comings and goings relate to the northern migration of blacks at the turn of the century.

Seth and Bertha Holly's boardinghouse is a stop along the way for some of these travelers, whether they stay for years, like the conjure man, Bynum Walker, or are just passing through, like Jeremy Furlow, a laborer fresh up from the South.

The plot revolves around a mysterious boarder. Herald Loomis, a large, spooky-looking man with a dainty 11-year-old daughter in tow, has come North to find the wife who deserted him after he was taken into illegal peonage by Joe Turner, brother of the governor of Tennessee.

From Loomis' description, Seth Holly recognizes her as a former boarder, but he's suspicious of this man's motives and refuses to get involved. Loomis engages the services of Rutherford Selig, a white traveling salesman with a sideline as a "people finder" -- a talent inherited from his slave-trader forebears.

The Hollys' boardinghouse is intended as a microcosm of black society in the industrialized North, and the folks who gather at their table are as diversified as the bits of paper and paint in a Romare Bearden collage (one of which, "Mill Hand's Lunch Bucket," inspired this play).

Large in theme as well as personality, the characters are demanding to portray, but for the most part, the Arena Players cast meets the challenges.

As Loomis, Archie D. Williams Jr. has a strong, menacing presence and the power to turn the audience's mood from jubilation to terror. In the pivotal scene at the end of the first act, Loomis relates a vision that nearly sends him into a seizure.

Steve Maurice's Bynum, with his fascination with roots and remedies, is the only man capable of reaching Loomis, and their shared scenes are spellbindingly taut. A standout in the cast is newcomer Jim Green, who brings high-spirited intensity to fun-loving Jeremy.

Also worthy of note is Joan Coursey, who makes it easy to see why maternal Bertha Holly gets along with everybody. Child actors Andre McLean and Daniel Simpson are refreshingly unaffected as Loomis' daughter, Zonia, and her friend, Reuben.

At the end of "Joe Turner's Come and Gone," Loomis is prepared to embark on his future, and his example supplies Bynum with the inspiration that the conjure man has been seeking.

As Bynum puts it, Loomis has "found his song."

At Arena Players, the production sings.

"Joe Turner's Come and Gone"

Where: Arena Players, 801 McCulloh St.

When: 8:30 p.m. Fridays, 7:30 p.m. Saturdays, 3 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Through Jan. 31.

Tickets: $12.

Call: (410) 728-6500.

*** 1/2

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