Joe Turner’s Come and Gone Theatre Review – An Excellent “Joe” Arrives in St. Pete

Herald (on table: Calvin M. Thompson) has a vision of his past, sending him into a fit as the others look on

(St. Petersburg, FL) Jan. 21, 2017 – For over seven years, I have had the pleasure of reviewing over 75 plays in Southern California. Many of these productions were phenomenal; others were…well, shall we say…memorable, in somewhat painful ways. Regardless of the diverse quality of the shows, being a theatre critic in Southern California was an incredible journey for me. But then in 2015, after living in SoCal for almost 30 years, I moved to Florida. It was one of the most painful decisions I had to make personally, professionally, creatively, and especially economically. But the risk paid off: I now live, work, and play in Pinellas/Hillsborough Counties, which are so reminiscent of Southern California. I am truly blessed to begin a new life at a place where opportunities are aplenty. To paraphrase from Frank Darabont’s “The Shawshank Redemption,” I have found my Zihuatanejo.

Jeremy (Satchel Andre) charms Mattie (Cindy De La Cruz)

                                  

But what about the western Florida theatre scene? It wasn’t after I did a little sleuthing that I discovered both Hillsborough and Pinellas Counties offer a plethora of the finest theatres in the state. One of those theatres is St. Petersburg’s American Stage. The first Florida show I wanted to review was its production of “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” penned by August Wilson, one of my favorite playwrights. And American Stage doesn’t disappoint. Courtesy of the brilliant acting and L. Peter Callender’s expert direction, “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” perfectly ends the theatre’s 10-year run of Wilson’s American Century Cycle.

Bynum (Mujahid Abdul-Rashid) revists his past about the "Shining Man"

The time is 1911 and the setting is a Pittsburgh boardinghouse. Seth and Bertha Holly (Kim Sullivan and Fanni Green, respectively) try to maintain the peace as the dwelling’s proprietors. Seth supplements their income by working nights as a craftsman of metal products, often dealing with a white peddler, Selig (a wonderfully slimy Richard B. Watson, whose lascivious smile barely hides a quiet racism towards his African American acquaintances). Bertha, in the meantime, serves as both chef and in-house counselor for her residents: Jeremy (Satchel Andre), a southern youth whose only passions are his music and his women; Mattie (Cindy De La Cruz), an emotionally fragile wife whose husband abandoned her on a whim; Molly (Jemier Jenkins), an independently minded woman who is determined to be forever single after her father abandoned her mother; and Bynum (Mujahid Abdul-Rashid), an older practitioner of herbs, spells, and storytelling—some would call it voodoo; he calls it healing and binding—who feels that everyone has an inner “song,” a unique spiritual power which connects them to their own cultural identity. All is relatively harmonious until two new borders disrupt everyone’s lives: Herald Loomis (Calvin M. Thompson) and his daughter Zonia (a lovely Bianca Rivera-Irions, whose scenes with Tyrese Pope’s hilarious Reuben are absolutely charming). Both are looking for their wife and mother, Martha (an angelic Alexandra Crawford), who left them while Herald was captured and imprisoned for seven years by slaver Joe Turner. And when they do reunite, themes of love, anguish, guilt and heritage are revealed by, as Abdul-Rashid’s Bynum would say, a “song” and a “shining light.”   

Molly (Jemier Jenkins) meets Seth (Kim Sullivan, l) as Jeremy (Satchel Andre, center) looks on

American Stage’s production of “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” marks a historical turning point in the theatre’s history by being one of only 12 theatres that has produced all of Wilson’s American Century Cycle plays. And L. Peter Callender’s flawless direction makes the experience seem like a passionate, mercurial evening of watching a dynamic jazz ensemble, with each artist bellowing their own harmonic solo. Along with Scott Cooper’s intimate scenic design (combining a nice 1911 period set with a colorful backdrop) and Sound Designer Rachel Harrison’s use of soul and blues music during scene changes, Callender has created a perfect historical snapshot of early 20th century Pittsburgh.

Bynum (Mujahid Abdul-Rashid) shares some words of wisdom with Jeremy (Satchel Andre)

All the supporting performances shine (there’s that word, again) in their own individual ways, most notably by Andre, De La Cruz, and Jenkins. Andre’s Jeremy is a benign young rascal, and the actor’s high energy, as well as his exploration regarding Jeremy’s flaws, are indeed enjoyable. Both Jenkins and especially De La Cruz are incredible playing two women whose pain stems from family abandonment. But how they handle that pain is an amazing contrast in both their character development and acting styles. De La Cruz embraces Mattie’s romantic spirit. She’s emotionally battered throughout the play; even the charms that Bynum gives her aren’t helping. However, she never completely wavers from her optimism and hope of finding a man who can reciprocate her love. This is especially evident during her scenes with Thompson’s Herald. De La Cruz is both heartbreaking and heartwarming in her gentle portrayal of a person who, although abused, is never a victim. Jenkins, on the other hand, harnesses her pain towards a more defensive method, combining a distant, yet refined sultriness with a no-nonsense “I don’t give a damn” attitude that never takes away from Molly’s sympathetic nature. It’s a very nuanced performance by Jenkins, who at one point has a Blanche DuBois air about her character when sharing a scene with De La Cruz’s Mattie (who also exudes the spirit of Stella Kowalski). If any Florida-based theatre is going to produce  “A Streetcar Named Desire,” then it better keep an eye on these two talented actresses whose acting styles match very well together.

Seth and Bertha Holly (Kim Sullivan and Fanni Green): a magical couple

However, the four leads are the true stars of “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.” The only actor in this repertory to appear in all ten of Wilson’s plays at American Stage, Sullivan is truly masterful as Seth, a witty, no-nonsense man whose only flaw is his curiosity about his tenants’ lives, even though he repeatedly says it’s none of his business. His comic timing is a sight to behold and his stage chemistry with Green’s Bertha is pure magic. Bertha serves as an ideal partner and foil for Seth, gently guiding him away from making a bad situation worse in the household. Green also interlaces Bertha with infinite joviality and motherly sympathy. Combining Sullivan’s blunt realism with Green’s maternal optimism, and the play has a perfect stage couple that brings a smile to the audience’s faces.

If Sullivan and Green represent the story’s body, then Abdul-Rashid and Thompson are its heart and soul. After being cast as a last-minute replacement five days before opening night, Abdul-Rashid’s Bynum is a classic demonstration in character creation and growth. His conjurer and healer is very reminiscent of Louise Erdrich’s Nanapush, the trickster in her critically acclaimed novel “Tracks,” where Abdul-Rashid expertly mixes wisdom with earthy panache,  as though he were creating one of Bynum’s special brews. Most importantly, Abdul-Rashid has an eloquent, poetic flair with Wilson’s language, visually conjuring the stories he shares with his fellow tenants. To do this in such a short period of time really demonstrates his craft as an artist. Equally powerful is Thompson’s Herald, whose tortured portrayal is a mosaic of loss of family and heritage. As Bynum once says, he sees him as a man “who done forgot his song.” Thompson’s emotional range traverses into intense internal and external rage, guilt, and despair, most notably during a vision Herald sees at the end of Act One. But Thompson transforms this poisonous emotional concoction into courage and grace. This is a shining moment for this complex character, this amazing play, and especially American Stage’s theatrical journey in producing the entirety of August Wilson American Century Cycle.

 

Peter A. Balaskas is a fiction writer, copyeditor, and playwright.

Joe Turner’s Come and Gone runs from Jan. 18-Feb. 19, 2017

American Stage

163 3rd St N.

St. Petersburg, FL 33701

Photos by Kara Goldberg

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