Joe Turner's Come and Gone Play by August Wilson. Directed by Lloyd Richards. ``Joe Turner's Come and Gone'' is the most searching of the growing cycle of August Wilson dramas about the black American experience. It was preceded on Broadway by ``Ma Rainey's Black Bottom'' (the 1920s) and the current ``Fences'' (the 1950s), winner of the Pulitzer Prize and other awards. The transcendent new work further explores the personal sufferings and struggles born of a diaspora that began with slavery and continued with the post-emancipation migration of blacks to the industrial North.
In the present work, the struggle is as much for self-identity and self-realization as for lost kinfolk. ``Joe Turner'' is set in Pittsburgh in 1911. Swinging in mood from the richly comic to the poignantly tragic, the play constitutes what Mr. Wilson has described as ``a boardinghouse play.'' Its inspiration comes from a painting by the late Romare Bearden and its title from a W.C. Handy blues ballad about the actual Joe Turner.
The action occurs in the simple but hospitable boarding house operated by Seth Holly (Mel Winkler), a hardworking factory hand and part-time tinsmith, and his good-hearted wife, Bertha (L. Scott Caldwell). The $2-a-week rate covers room and two meals a day. The boarders include Bynum Walker (Ed Hall), an amateur ``voodoo'' man with claims to mystic healing and ``binding'' powers; Jeremy Furlow (Bo Rucker), a newcomer from the South with a guitar under his arm and an eye for the girls; Mattie Campbell (Kimberleigh Aarn), a pretty woman in search of the husband who deserted her after the death of their two children; and humorous, worldly-wise Molly Cunningham (Kimberly Scott).
The cheerful, occasionally explosive course of events takes a darker turn with the arrival of Herald Loomis (Delroy Lindo) and his 11-year-old daughter Zonia (Jamila Perry). Loomis, a one-time church deacon, has been a victim of the notorious Joe Turner, a bounty hunter who kidnapped blacks and sold them into plantation servitude. After completing his term, Loomis has taken to the road in search of the wife from whom circumstances separated him.
Seth's suspicions of the black-clad, seemingly sinister Loomis explode into hostility when a ``juba'' celebration leaves the stranger writhing and out of control. Although the benign Bynum proves his healing gift, it requires an even more violent eruption to bring the complex, multifaceted play to its affirmingly mystical resolution.
While Wilson's dialogue abounds in folk-flavored vernacular, his lyric flights (especially as spoken by Mr. Hall's Bynum) give ``Joe Turner'' its extra dimension of poetic drama. The author also proves once more that he has moved far beyond the conventional ``race play.'' The crimes of Joe Turner are presented as merely part of the pattern of subjugation that black Americans have historically endured. No great stir is caused among the boarders when Rutherford Selig (Raynor Scheine), a white traveling tin salesman who earns a little on the side for tracking down lost loved ones, tells how his father used to apprehend runaway slaves for their masters.
The performance staged by Lloyd Richards, Wilson's longtime collaborator, at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre is sensitively attuned to the resonances of ``Joe Turner's Come and Gone.'' Hall and Mr. Lindo create the central dynamic for a human drama of heroic proportions. Besides those already mentioned, the good cast includes Angela Bassett as Loomis's finally appearing wife and Richard Parnell Habersham as a little boy next door. A murky background of smokestacks and bridges looms above the cozy boardinghouse premises of Scott Bradley's setting. The Yale Repertory Theatre production, lighted by Michael Gionnitti and costumed by Pamela Peterson, expands the scope and range of what is becoming a magnificent project.