Before you even reach the dialogue, it's obvious everything August Wilson crammed onto the page when he wrote Joe Turner's Come and Gone can't possibly be recreated onstage — not unless you can show the barges indicated in his stage directions trudging up the Monongahela River to Pittsburgh in 1911 and the sun falling "out of heaven like a stone." So it's a good idea, once the dialogue does start in Seth and Bertha Holly's boardinghouse, for all of it to reach the audience intact.
Too often, that isn't happening at Pease Auditorium in CPCC Theatre's latest fling with Wilson, their third in the past five years. Sometimes, especially with the two children in the cast, the voices aren't loud enough. At others, the panorama of the Pease stage is so extreme that, when action shifts to one of the wings, some people sitting in the back row at one side of the theater are closer to the actors than those of us who are in the front row at the opposite wing. There are also moments when the actors' accents make Wilson's idiomatic language harder to grasp — and still others when multiple actors are called upon to say different things at the same time.
While the 2015 edition of CP's Sensoria Festival opened with a Verdi vs. Wagner concert across Elizabeth Avenue at Halton Theater, it was useful to watch Joe Turner as if it were also opera. That was more easily done this year, with Corlis Hayes directing, than it was when she directed Wilson's Piano Lesson in the newly renovated Pease, also at Sensoria in 2010. Bynum, the conjuring root doctor, and the wandering Herald are the flamboyant melodramatic characters you most need to listen to: their monologues are the major arias.
Both men are searchers. Bynum's long monologue is about the "shiny man — shining like new money — the One Who Goes Before and Shows the Way." Every man, his father taught him, must find his own song. If Bynum should ever encounter the shining man a second time, he will know that his song, a binding song, has been accepted — has "worked its full power in the world."
Seth doesn't like Bynum much, but he endures him as a boarder because he's paid-up on his rent. When Herald shows up on his doorstep with his daughter, Zonia, Seth likes him even less. He's the man who is connected to the Turner mentioned in W.C. Handy's blues song. Herald was captured by Turner and forced to serve in his chain gang for seven years, losing contact with his wife, Martha, during his servitude and searching for her for another three years after his liberation. Eventually, both Bynum and Herald have given a dollar to peddler Rutherford Selig, the People Finder, one dollar for a shiny man and one for a long lost wife.
Other folk boarding at the Hollys' might think about using Selig's services. Guitar player Jeremy has been arrested the previous night, perhaps for nothing more than being black, and is clearly looking for a woman to latch onto. That turns out to be Mattie, who asks Bynum to use his song to get her man back. The new Jeremy-Mattie liaison may only last a week, once the wanton Molly shows up.
Music is certainly a binding motif at the end of Act 1 when Seth invites his boarders to join him in a Juba, which Wilson describes as "reminiscent of the Ring Shouts of the African Slaves." In the frenetic dancing and drumming and shouting that follow, the playwright encourages plenty of improvised African flavor, insisting only that Bynum do the drumming and that the shouting include the Holy Ghost. It's enough to drive Herald into a crazed, spasmodic, speaking-in-tongues fit, followed by a horrific vision that will remind anyone who has seen Wilson's Gem of the Ocean of that drama's climactic journey to the City of Bones.
Music figures prominently in Act 2, Scene 2, when Herald walks in on a game of dominoes, where Bynum is singing "Joe Turner's Blues" as he plays with Seth. For a second time, Herald reacts negatively to the music. Bynum can not only see that Herald was once one of Joe Turner's captives, he can also see that he's forgotten that unique song that defines him — that can heal him. A bunch of complex connections unfolds as this scene continues, all of them exploding at the end of the evening.
That explosion shouldn't be accompanied by music, but unfortunately, Hayes has gotten carried away by all the blues and Juba that came before. Instead of a horrific religious renunciation of the 23rd Psalm, Hayes directs her cast to deliver a chaotic operatic trio, with Bynum chanting and supplying percussion while the back-and-forth between Herald and the Bible is wailed out in unison.
It's actually pretty spectacular without the precise gist of Wilson's script. Jonavan Adams is darkly heroic and borderline insane as Herald, yet the bizarre religious experiences that torment him may truly be the path to his rebirth. Appearing briefly as Martha, Veda Covington is so pure, proper, and Christian that she is surely not what Herald needs. Even though his most extreme voodoo rites occur offstage as the action begins, Willie J. Stratford Jr., is every inch a wily old pagan as Bynum, the zestiest person onstage from his first entrance.
Sidney Horton and Lillie Oden as the Hollys are the conventional backbone of this little community, her everlasting indulgence counterbalancing his persistent belligerence in their humdrum marital chemistry. The other adults are nicely young and unseasoned by comparison. Genial and randy as Jeremy, Dominic Weaver had me wondering whether the troubadour skirt-chaser would end up more like Seth or like Herald in the coming years. Tracie Frank is a demure beauty as Mattie, just subdued enough to be quickly discarded when Molly arrives. Nicole Danielle Watts gives that temptress all the pert confidence she needs to turn Jeremy's head, assured of getting what she wants with only a callow notion of what that should be.
Tom Scott is the one white person in the cast as Rutherford Selig, the only character that connects Joe Turner with Gem of the Ocean, which is the one play that precedes Turner in Wilson's decade-by-decade traversal of African American life in the 20th century, his 10-play Pittsburgh Cycle. Scott is just as grizzled as Raynor Scheine, who played Selig on Broadway in both plays, but louder.
Though it sports enough doors for a farce, Jessica Cave's set design doesn't clash with the mood, but it's really Jamey Varnadore's costumes that excel in blending the remnants of frontier roughness with modernity. Technical director Don Ketcham gets the blood effect vividly right deep into Act 2. Until you see it flowing, it's a good idea to be paying close attention every time blood is mentioned. It binds Wilson's rich drama as much as the bones of Herald's vision and Bynum's binding song.