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JOE TURNER’S COME AND GONE helps celebrate 100th anniversary of Karamu

Roy Berko

(Member, American Theatre Critics Association, Cleveland Critics Circle)

On June 15, 2015, Karamu, the country’s oldest continuously performing Black Theatre, will celebrate its 100th birthday.

As part of the celebration year, the theatre is reviving some of its most notable productions.  Therefore, it is entirely appropriate that August Wilson’s personal favorite play in his “The Pittsburgh Cycle,”  JOE TURNER’S COME AND GONE, be performed.

Wilson was one of America’s best known African-American playwrights and is well remembered for writing 10 plays about blacks in Pittsburgh, his hometown.  He wrote one play for each decade.  Two of the scripts received Pulitzer Prizes for Drama.

JOE TURNER’S COME AND GONE takes place in Seth Holly’s boarding house in 1911.  It provides a glance into African American patterns of the late nineteenth and early to mid-twentieth century of  blacks trying to find “their song.”  They were attempting, after many years of slavery where they were controlled by the “massa,” to identify where to live, what to do with their freedom, and what family structure they should form.

Many blacks, as they wandered around seeking of their “song,” and to avoid the continued discrimination of the South, came North, and stayed for short periods of time in boarding houses.  The Holly House was an example where they claimed as a short term home.  It was a place to have a bed to sleep in, breakfast and dinner, for about $2 a week.

The play’s title is based on the popular blues song, “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” a W. C. Handy tune, which tells the tale of Joe Turner, a plantation owner, who illegally enslaved blacks for a period of seven years in order to physically and psychologically beat them down, destroy their families, and continue the patterns of slavery.

Herald Loomis was one of those captured by a “Joe Turner.”  When he returned after his “sentence,” his wife and child were gone.  Loomis starts a search for them. He locates his daughter at his mother-in-law’s home.  Unable to find his wife, Martha, he continues his tracking to the North.  He arrives in Pittsburgh, one of the border line cities, to which the ex-slaves fled.

The plot follows a liner line, exposing each of the characters who populate or visit the Holly House.  We meet Seth and Bertha Holly who run the establishment.  There is Bynum Walker, a practitioner of voodoo and conjuring, who shares a tale of meeting a “Shiny Man” who taught him his “song.”

Selig, a white peddler who travels the countryside, brings Seth Holly metal to be made into pots and pans, stops in to share gossip and pick up his products.

Others come and go, including Jeremy, a young “playah’” who strums the guitar and jumps from job to job and from woman to woman.  There is Herald Loomis, a menacing looking man in a long black coat and lifeless eyes, Zonia, his pre-tween daughter, and Mattie Campbell who needs Bynum’s help to find the man who has run out on her.

We also meet Reuben Scott, a teenager who befriends Zonia, and Molly Cunnigham, who has missed her train, needs a place to stay, and hints of making money by befriending men.

Each of the characters is in search of identity. They must learn to be human beings, rather than objects to be sold, traded, or controlled by others.

Playwright Wilson is a master at creating dialogue which clearly defines each character.  Their use of language and dialect clearly sets them apart.  Loomis is a man of the south as his Southern words and dialect illustrate, while Seth Holly has a twang of Pennsylvania, the symbol of a free man of several generations in the north.

The Karamu production is basically well conceived by director Terrance Spivey.  The massive set fills the arena theatre.  The pacing is well done, with lots of physical action interspersed to keep the action moving along.

Several things distract.  Why are all the meals a biscuit and a partially filled cup of coffee?  Even when grits are referred to, a biscuit is served.  Why are some of the windows void of glass panes?  No programs were given out, robbing the audience of such necessary information as the play’s date, setting and the background of the performers.

The cast is exceptional.  There is not a weak performer on the stage.  Michael May excels as Herald Loomis, a frustrated man who has been beaten into submission and voided of his manhood.  His eyes change from flatness to flashing anger and back again, his powerful body writhes in pain and explodes in powerful attack, then retreats.  The last scene, when he threatens himself and the others, is mesmerizing.

Tonya Davis shows a depth of restraint and character as Bertha Holly.  Butch Terry is delightful as Bynum.  Prophet D. Seay portrays Jeremy with a devilish charm.  Zamani Munashe is lovely as Zonia.  Both Kennetha Martin and Phillia Thomas create real people as Mattie and Molly.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:  JOE TURNER’S COME AND GONE is a perfect script choice for both Karamu’s 100th anniversary and Black History month.  The script is a classic and the production is one of Karamu’s better offerings.  For those who want a good history lesson, to be exposed to the writing of one of America’s greatest playwrights, and see a well performed show, JOE TURNER’S COME AND GONE is a good choice! 

JOE TURNERS COME AND GONE continues through February 15, 2015 at Karamu, 2355 East 89th Street, which has a fenced, guarded and lighted parking lot adjacent to the theatre, and provides free parking.  For ticket information call 216-795-7077.