By BOB HOOVER
Defeated, angry Black men are at the center of numerous August Wilson plays. Still, none is angrier and more dangerous than Herald Loomis in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, now playing at the August Wilson House, 1727 Bedford Ave., the Hill District, extended through September 10th.
Roosevelt Watts Jr.’s powerful and fierce portrayal of Loomis is the center of Wilson’s fourth play, following on the Broadway heels of Fences, his 1987 Pulitzer-Prize winner. The year is 1911 when Loomis appears at Seth Holly’s Hill District boarding house, dressed in a long black coat and sinister hat despite the August heat.
As described by the landmark “Pittsburgh Survey,” a pioneering study of the city’s environment and class structure, it was a place of pestilence, disease, and social neglect, exemplified by the open sewers, lack of fresh water, and thousands of outhouses.
His appearance is softened by the young girl holding his hand at the front door. She’s Zonia, his 10-year-old daughter, played by Saniya J.E. Lavelle on opening night. The two have spent three years looking for her mother, Martha.
Wilson grounds this play in the oppressive history of the Jim Crow South, where Loomis was grabbed by a fictional white Tennessee bounty hunter called Joe Turner and imprisoned for seven years. Martha forgot her husband, left their daughter with her mother, and followed her pastor north to a new church in Rankin.
Finally freed, Loomis claims Zonia and goes searching, ending up in Pittsburgh. It’s a path many Southern Blacks have taken north with the promise of work in the factories of cities like Pittsburgh with its steel mills and construction as the city’s population grew with European immigrants as well.
Kevin Brown, a veteran of Wilson plays, embodies the character of Holly, a self-important “windbag,” who meddles in everybody’s business and is sure Loomis means nothing but trouble. “Know these are respectable quarters,” he warns.
Holly is a curious Wilson character, a Black man born in the North, who owns his house in the Hill, but finds no respect among his white boss and moneylenders. He wants to start his own pots-and-pans business but can’t raise the money.
Then there’s the familiar Wilson “conjure man,” Bynum, a wise man in the ways of African lore who dances with pigeons and blends plants into mystical concoctions. Holly tolerates his harmless antics, played to full effect by Mike Traylor, another Wilson play veteran. Traylor injects needed comic relief in a work that grows darker with each act as Loomis falls into a frightening state of hopelessness.
Joe Turner‘s has a big cast of 11 characters, a challenge to any director, but it seems that Mark Clayton Southers, Playwrights’ artistic director, has made the play his own. He directed it earlier this year at the Phoenix Black Theatre Troupe, adding flourishes that show his interpretations of Wilson’s message.
And Joe Turner‘s is a big play as well, touching on religion, the search for independence, tenderness, and the value – or lack of – relationships. There are four women – Bertha Holly (Shaunda Miles McDill, managing director of the Pittsburgh Public Theater), boarding house residents Mattie Campbell (Dominque Briggs) and Molly Cunningham (Jamaica Johnson), and Martha Pentecost (Karla Payne). They’re dealing with their roles in life in their own ways.
Rounding out the cast are Marcus Muzopappa as peddler Rutherford Selig, Dionysius Akeem as Jeremy Furlow, boarding house resident and guitarist, and Cameron Edwards as the neighbor boy Reuben.
As the nearly three-hour play rushes to its finish, it comes down to Loomis and Bynum partnering to get the traumatized Joe Turner victim back on his feet. Loomis, a former church deacon, has rejected Christianity after visions of the Middle Passage leave him hopeless. (Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean explores this theme further.)
Central to the play’s message is finding your “song,” or your sense of self-worth that Turner stole from Loomis. “All you got to do is stand up and sing it, Herald Loomis,” Bynum tells him. “It’s right there kicking at your throat. All you got to do is sing it. Then you be free.”
Joe Turner’s Come and Gone is a complicated play that takes its time but entertains with Wilson’s natural conversational style and embrace of the commonplace in a world of newfound freedom or oppression in white America.
TICKETS AND DETAILS
A coproduction with August Wilson House, for more information and tickets, visit https://www.pghplaywrights.org/turner/