There is powerful poetry afoot in this play by August Wilson, involving the individual songs that define specific people as well as the sweeping orchestral movements that embody masses of people on the move, trying to find a home.
Set in 1911, Joe Turner is a massively ambitious play masquerading at times as a very simple story about a, African-American boardinghouse in Pittsburgh and the folks who pass though its doors. And this production, directed with spot-on specificity by Terrence Spivey, tells that story with skill.
Seth Holly and his wife Bertha own the building, with rooms for guests in the front and Seth’s metal working shop in the back. Seth is a gruff tyrant of his domain, and Cornell H. Calhoun, III snarls with the best of them. But he also shows Seth’s tender side. As Bertha, Tonya Davis—despite some softness on lines early on—creates a sympathetic portrait of this woman who truly loves her man.
That solid relationship is central to the play, which is happening only 50 years after the slaves were freed. That means that many black people are still wanderers without a home, trying to find a foothold in a country that seems large and forbidding.
One man who has found that footing is Bynum Walker, a mystical man who performs weird daily rituals in the garden outside. Seth doesn’t appreciate the pigeon blood being spilled out there, but he and Bynum share a mutual respect. And Butch Terry brings Bynum to life with warmth and a dash of wit.
A frequent visitor to the Holly house is Rutherford Selig, heir to slave traders and now a "finder” who can track down sheet metal for Seth’s mini-industry or find missing persons. Rich Stimac is perfect in this role, relishing his negotiating prowess while always finding a way to cadge another dollar out of a prospective client.
Among the other guests who wander through are Jeremy Furlow, a manual laborer and guitar player who hits on every pretty young thing who comes through the door. As Furlow, Prophet D. Seay is a delight, using his smooth patter to weave a spell around his female targets. Those include both Mattie Campbell (Kennetha Martin), a woman who is waiting for her man to come back, and Molly Cunningham (Phillia Thomas), a woman who doesn’t want a man around to impede her path through life.
But the most compelling of the guests is Herold Loomis, who arrives with his young daughter Zonia in tow. He is initially a taciturn man who is looking for his wife Martha. But as the play progresses, Loomis blooms into a fascinating and tragic figure, powerfully rendered by Michael May. Loomis lost seven years of his life, unfairly consigned to the chain gang of Joe Turner (who was immortalized in the blues song), and it has distorted his life in significant ways. There are intense and magical forces at work in Loomis—and in everyone else, to be truthful—and this production hits them all.
Even when Zonia (Zamani Munashe) and a slightly older boy Reuben (Kali Hatten) get together, their scene of first kiss is tender and affecting.
Once Selig is put on the trail of Loomis’ Martha, it feels like something important will happen, And it does, when Selig brings Martha (Laprise Johnson) back to Loomis. His transformative reaction, leading to the play’s conclusion, feels right and fully earned.
Joe Turner is a masterwork by one of American’s finest playwrights, and this Karamu production does it full justice, with distinct characters etched in clear detail. Even at more than 2 1/2 hours with intermission, it’s a compelling theatrical experience.
Joe Turner’s Come and Gone
Through February 15 at Karamu House, 2355 E. 89th St., 216-795-7077.