Epic Proportions

The Black Rep assays August Wilson

Joe Turner's Come and Gone

Grandel Theater, 3610 Grandel Square

Call 314-534-3810.

On a hot August night in 1911, several residents at a Pittsburgh boarding house ward off the oppressive summer heat by engaging in a spirited Juba. "Juba" is not a word most of us hear every day; derived from Zulu, it means "to kick about." Apparently in pre-Civil War days, slaves on southern plantations took pleasure in Juba dancing. Several of these Pittsburgh boarders are the children of slaves. They've migrated north to take their place in a free society that has no use for them, and now they're in limbo.

An enigmatic, moody stranger named Herald Loomis (Ron Himes) derides his fellow boarders for such frenzied dancing. Herald has no use for the South he's left behind. Without realizing it, he's more consumed by the continent his people left behind. In an unexpected paroxysm, Herald recounts having seen disturbing visions of bones rising out of the water. As his legs lose strength and he collapses to the ground, the boarding-house floor (thanks to the effective lighting by Christian Epps) is transmuted into the deck of a slave ship. The bones of countless Africans who died on the high seas, lost souls whose bodies were tossed into the Atlantic, are given flesh in the tortured frame of Herald Loomis. This is dangerous theater, fraught with mysticism and metaphor.

This is also the St. Louis Black Repertory Company doing what it does best. After a one-year hiatus, once again the Black Rep is opening its season by scaling the Everest of an August Wilson play. This year's ascent, Joe Turner's Come and Gone, was first produced on Broadway in 1988, when it was sandwiched between Wilson's two Pulitzer Prize winners, Fences and The Piano Lesson. At its most literal, the story concerns Herald, who was imprisoned for seven years on Joe Turner's Tennessee chain gang. Stripped of any vestige of self-esteem, Herald believes that if he can find his missing wife he'll be able to make peace with the past and resume his life where it was severed.

But Joe Turner is rarely to be taken as merely literal. The drama is a microcosm of a black America in flux at the outset of a new century. Wilson has populated the boarding house with an aggregation of drifters lost in mumbo-jumbo worlds of their own making. They call themselves "people finders" and "people binders." One voodoo practitioner is in search of "a shiny man." These characters cannot fully live unless they have songs to sing and know how to sing them.

Andrea Frye has directed the play with an eye to detail. In the opening scene, boarding-house owner Seth Holly (A.C. Smith, a veritable life force) and his wife Bertha (Denise Thimes) engage in an unspoken debate over whether Seth's breakfast would benefit from the addition of salt and pepper. This ritualistic sparring, though not in the script, lends a welcome touch of humanity to the proceedings. Another intriguing addition to the text occurs when a frisky young stud (Ronald L. Conner) flirts with a sexy new boarding-house arrival (Monica Parks) by rolling her a cigarette. Two seasons ago in The Sty of the Blind Pig, Parks portrayed a drab spinster; here she is a coruscating invitation to a good time. All praise to the Black Rep for allowing actors to act.

Just try to stop Dennis Lebby from acting. This Black Rep stalwart is one of the most versatile, inventive actors in town. Here he portrays Bynum Walker, who devotes his heebie-jeebie existence to pursuing "the secret of life." How tempting it must have been for Lebby to accentuate Bynum's eccentricities and idiosyncrasies. Instead, this performance is all stillness. Late in Act Two, as Bynum sits on the porch stoop with the fingers of his right hand extended across his raised right knee, for a fleeting moment he bears an uncanny likeness to Daniel Chester French's statue of Abraham Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial.

But all the best intentions cannot disguise the fact that Joe Turner's Come and Gone is yet another overwritten Wilson drama. Wilson refuses to say something twice if he can say it three times. Throughout his career he has rebuffed all efforts by directors and producers to seek clarity through pruning. Far be it from the Black Rep to tamper with Wilson's uncompromising success. Nevertheless, viewers who attend Joe Turner's Come and Gone should be prepared to make an attentive commitment to a dense, often arduous, evening.

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