The Theatreguide.London Review
Joe Turner's Come and Gone
Young Vic Theatre Summer 2010
August Wilson is the African-American playwright who set himself the challenge of writing ten plays, each set in a different decade, to trace the African-American experience of the Twentieth Century, and actually finished the project shortly before his death in 2005.
Joe Turner, set in1911, is not the best play of the sequence - I'd rank Fences, Jitney and The Piano Lesson at the top - but it has strong moments and is certainly a necessity for anyone hoping to experience the whole cycle.
The owners and residents of a Pittsburgh boarding house warily welcome a newcomer, who is gradually discovered to be an ex-convict in search of his wife.
His story provides the forward movement and plot, but it is actually the weakest part of the play, because we see relatively little of him and because too much of his adventure depends on a mystical internal experience difficult to convey in performance.
One of Wilson's occasional dramatic lapses - it shows up on Gem Of The Ocean and The Piano Lesson as well - was a tendency to rely on magical moments he could explain fully in a stage direction but virtually defy actors and directors to convey in performance.
Here, for example, is the stage direction for the climactic moment in this play:
Having found his song, the song of self-sufficiency, fully resurrected, cleansed and given breath, free from any encumbrance other than the workings of his own heart and the bonds of the flesh, having accepted the responsibility for his own presence in the world, he is free to soar above the environs that weighed and pushed his spirit into terrifying contractions.
O.K. You figure out how to play that.
So it is not too surprising that the background action, the day-to-day living in the boarding house, is more fully realised and communicated in this production, and that you are likely to find the supposedly secondary characters more real and more interesting than the protagonist.
The landlord grumbles good-naturedly about his tenants, putters in his workshop and acknowledges without too much surprise or rancour the racism behind his inability to get a bank loan.
His wife cooks delicious meals and offers wise counsel, an older resident dabbles in mysticism and voodoo, a younger one flirts (with remarkable success) with every woman who passes, and a general sense emerges of how life in this warm community transcends poverty or racism.
David Lan's production, in the round, captures this reality, making the milieu, more than the visitor's adventure, the dominant impression the play leaves.
With relatively little stage time, the role of the searching man really needs an actor able to establish a presence and weight, so that his shadow hangs over the scenes he's not in, but Kobna Holdbrook-Smith too often seems little more than an extra passing through someone else's play just to make up the numbers.
Danny Sapani as the landlord, Adjoa Andoh as his wife, Delroy Lindo as the older man and Nathaniel Martello-White as the unlikely Romeo carry the acting honours.
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