Broadway Review: May 30, 2009 (Show Closed: June 14, 2009)
OK, not double dating exactly… we shared the evening with two other close friends, 1,010 other theater goers, plus a small army of secret service and security personnel – but sitting in the Belasco Theater last night one row behind and about 25 seats to the right of the Obamas somehow felt like a shared personal experience.
Most of those in the house who had purchased tickets to see the Lincoln Center Theater Company’s revival of Joe Turner’s Come and Gone some time ago were unaware that the first family would be there and thus showed up at the usual 15 minutes before curtain only to find 44th St. totally shut down and a long slow moving line as everyone went through bag checks and frisking before entering the theater. Since we purchased our tickets just the night before when our double date was finalized, we planned to have dinner on the early side at the Jewel of India just down the street from the Belasco and arrive in plenty of time to meet Barack and Michelle at the theater (they preferred to dine downtown). As we approached the corner of 44th and 6th Ave. the streets were already lined with folks behind barricades hoping for a glimpse of the presidential motorcade as it made its way past. At the corner, a phalanx of NYPD asked to see our tickets and then assigned us an officer to personally escort us down the closed off street to the door of the theater.
So not surprisingly, with all the whoopla the show started about an hour late which only heightened the anticipation as all the buzz in the house was over where the Obamas might be seated. Even a Meryl Streep sighting caused only a minor stir. The audience was more diverse than a typical Broadway show which had more to do with it being an August Wilson play but nevertheless the feeling of pride in our first African American president was palpable and most everyone seemed excited to be part of the experience. One exception was an elderly woman with a stick up her ass, loudly complaining that the President’s visit was just such an inconvenience reminding me how out of touch and clueless the Republicans really are. Finally everyone was in the house and the President and First Lady were led in amidst a noisy standing ovation. Repeated previous admonitions from the ushers that photos were not permitted in the theater were simply ignored and the place was popping with flashing cameras. They rapidly made their way to their seats without much fuss – a brief wave of acknowledgement from the President – and the house lights were down, the curtain was up and the house quieted quickly as the attention turned to the cast of Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.
The second of a series of ten plays by African American playwright August Wilson that trace decade by decade the African American experience in the twentieth century, Joe Turner’s takes place in Pittsburgh (Wilson’s home town) in 1911. The city is dominated by the economic engine of the booming steel works but the post Reconstruction African American community is still struggling to find its way spiritually and establish a foothold of economic security amongst the prosperity that surrounds and eludes them. As Wilson tells us in a prologue to the play:
The fires of the steel mill rage with a combined sense of industry and progress. Barges loaded with coal and iron ore trudge up the river to the mill towns that dot the Monongahela and return with fresh, hard, gleaming steel. The city flexes its muscles. Men throw countless bridges across the rivers, lay roads and carve tunnels through the hills sprouting with houses. *
The story is historically based and takes its name from an old W.C. Handy blues song about the real Joe Turney, (the brother of Tennessee Governor Pete Turney) who was notorious for illegally abducting African Americans and forcing them into long periods of servitude on his plantation for little or no pay. The play unfolds at a Pittsburgh boarding house run by Seth Holly (Ernie Hudson) and his wife Bertha (Latanya Richardson Jackson) who help make ends meet by providing temporary lodging and meals for $2 per week. Seth also fashions pots and pans and other metal products from the sheet steel brought by a traveling white peddler (Arliss Howard) who then buys Seth’s products and sells them for a profit. The other characters include Bynum Walker (Tony Award Nominee Roger Robinson), the wise elder “root worker” who produces natural elixirs and bills himself as a “binder” based on his abilities to bind people together and Jeremy Furlow (Andre Howard) who is fired (furloughed?) from his subsistence job of $8/wk because he refuses to pay a white foreman a $0.50 kickback,
From the deep and the near South the sons and daughters of newly feed African slaves wander into the city… They arrive carrying Bibles and guitars, their pockets lined with dust and fresh hope, marked men and women seeking to scrape from the narrow, crooked cobbles and the fiery blasts of the coke furnace a way of bludgeoning and shaping the malleable parts of themselves into a new identity as free men of definite and sincere worth.*
But the main theme of the play is the displacement of the newly freed slaves and the first generation of African Americans born to freedom in search of new lives but also in search of families that could not survive the oppression that still endured. Herald Loomis (Chad Coleman) manages to escape the clutches of Joe Turner after seven years of servitude and returns to his home to find that his wife Martha (Danai Gurira) moved north to try and make a new life, leaving their daughter Zonia (Amari Rose Leigh) in care of her mother until she could send for her. Loomis, distraught, takes Zonia off in search of Martha and we meet them as they wander into the boarding house.
Foreigners in a strange land, they carry as part and parcel of their baggage a long line of separation and dispersement which informs their sensibilities and marks their conduct as they search for ways to reconnect, to reassemble, to give clear and luminous meaning to the song which is both a wail and a whelp of joy.*
Rebuilding lives and a nation after the devastation of slavery doesn’t come easily and August Wilson takes us back on a journey that provides a small snapshot in time not so long ago where the country’s growing pains were deep and ever present. Fast forwarding a mere 98 years later and experiencing his story alongside the first African American president in our country’s history was a subtext that resonated throughout the Belasco Theater and brought a tear to my eyes.
* Prologue to Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, Playwright August Wilson