by Michael Buzzelli
Herald Loomis (Roosevelt Watts, Jr.) and his daughter Zonia (Saniya J.E. Lavelle) have come to Holly’s boarding house in Pittsburgh in search of his missing wife in August Wilson’s “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.”
Bertha (Shaunda Miles McDill) welcomes them, but her husband Seth (Kevin Brown) is leery of his new boarder.
People come and go from the boarding house. Though it’s most eccentric resident, Bynum (Mike Traylor), a former-slave-turned-shaman, is a fixture.
Bynum tells Loomis that, for one dollar, Rutherford Selig (Marcus Muzopappa) can find Herald’s missing wife, Martha (Karla Payne).
Meanwhile, another boarder, Jeremy Furlow (Dionysius Akeem) has taken up with Mattie Campbell (Dominique Briggs) and has invited her to share his room. Unfortunately, it’s on the same day that Molly Cunningham (Jamaica Johnson) moves into the boarding house, and Jeremy is instantly smitten.
Pittsburgh playwright Wilson was inspired by a collage, “Mill Hand’s Lunch Bucket,” by Romare Bearden. Chronologically, it’s the second play in Wilson’s Century Cycle.
Abandonment seems to be at the core of the story. Everyone is being ghosted. Mattie Campbell’s first beau left her, Martha left Herald. Zonia has to leave her father to be with her mother.
There’s also a supernatural element.
Brown is sensational as the beleaguered Holly, especially in his scenes with Watts. Each man is boiling with rage, but it’s sublimated in different ways. Seth has big plans for the future and Herald wants to reconcile with his past.
Watts is charismatic. He commands the stage every time he steps into a scene.
Traylor’s Bynum is the most fun. He tells tale tales and spins supernatural yarns. The character is goofy, but charming. It’s hard to discern if he’s a crackpot or the wizard of Wylie Avenue (probably a little bit of both).
Bertha Holly spends much of her time calming her hot-headed husband down, but McDill makes the most of the role.
Briggs plays Mattie Campbell as prim, proper and no-nonsense, but Mattie is a deeply lonely woman. Briggs manages to project that loneliness throughout her performance.
Lavelle’s Zonia was a darling. The young girl has a plethora of emotions to run through in the show and Lavelle excels at it, particularly in her scenes with Cameron Edwards as Reuben Mercer, the boy next door.
Note: In our COVID-cautious era, many of the roles are double cast and there is a healthy list of understudies. The review reflects the cast as they appeared on opening night.
Kudos to costume designer Cheryl El-Walker and Jameelah Platt in replicating the hats, coats and trousers of the period.
Mark Clayton Southers does a magnificent job with the material. While the first act idles as it introduces a large cast, the second act rockets to the end.
Trigger warning: Because it’s set in the 1910s, the N word is used unsparingly.
There is something to be said for outdoor theater. Despite the motorcycles roaring by, the helicopters booming overhead and the Lantern flies jumping on unsuspecting patrons, there is a visceral thrill to experiencing theater outside, especially in August Wilson’s backyard. When the characters talk about Wylie Avenue and Locust Street, you can point to them.
“Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” is an emotional experience.
“Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” runs from August 5 to September 10 at the historic August Wilson House, 1727 Bedford Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15219. For more information, click here.