`Joe Turner' is in good hands

Critic's Corner

Vagabond presents a compelling version of Wilson's drama

Critic's Corner// Theater

September 21, 2006|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,sun theater critic

Almost exactly a year after August Wilson's untimely death at age 60, the Vagabond Players is honoring the playwright's memory with a moving production of one of his most magnificent works - Joe Turner's Come and Gone.

Chronologically the second play in Wilson's decade-by-decade chronicle of 20th century African-American life, Joe Turner is set in a Pittsburgh boarding house in 1911. The Vagabonds production is directed by Amini Johari-Courts, who also staged this play at Arena Players in 1993, five years after it was seen on Broadway. Returning to it now, she has assembled a tightly knit ensemble of actors, including three strong male leads.

Archie D. Williams, reprising his Arena role, brings a sense of gravity and foreboding to protagonist Herald Loomis, who comes to Pittsburgh after seven years of illegal servitude to the brother of the governor of Tennessee (widely known as Joe Turner, but actually named Joe Turney). With his young daughter (demure Kinnidy S. Jackson) in tow, Loomis is searching for the wife who deserted him.

Though Loomis frightens most people he encounters, Michael A. Kane's Seth Holly, owner of the boarding house, isn't so much afraid of Loomis as he is suspicious. Kane handles Wilson's poetic language with aplomb, and he imbues Seth with the stalwart presence of a man who has eked out a respectable living working two jobs and is determined to run a respectable house, as Seth repeatedly says.

The burden of most of the play's aria-like speeches falls to a latecomer to the production. Replacing an actor who became ill, Louis B. Murray brings a winning combination of dignity and magic to his portrayal of Bynum, a conjure man who works with roots and spells. The character is also an adept student of human nature, however, and Murray's Bynum is part psychologist, part shaman.

Cheryl Pasteur distinguishes herself as Seth's wise wife. But almost the entire cast is a credit to this powerful examination of the continuing toll of slavery, decades after the Emancipation Proclamation.

Joe Turner continues through Oct. 1 at the Vagabonds, 806 S. Broadway. Tickets are $14. Call 410-563-9135.

Playwrights awards

The final two productions in the 25th Baltimore Playwrights Festival took top honors at Monday night's awards ceremony at Center Stage. Rich Espey's Hope's Arbor was named best play, and Uncommon Voices' staging of Ira Gamerman's Split, directed by Ian Bellnap, was named best production. A lifetime achievement award was presented to Beverly Sokal, president of Fell's Point Corner Theatre, one of the festival's founding theaters. Submissions to the 2007 festival are due Sept. 30. For guidelines, visit baltimoreplaywrightsfestival.org.

j.wynn.rousuck@baltsun.com

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