March 26th, 2009

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Joe Turner's Come And Gone

We went to see August Wilson's Joe Turner's Come and Gone tonight. I'm still awash in a sea of awe, and may not make much sense about it, but I just wanted to say that this play is one of the most remarkable pieces of theatre I've seen in a long time. It spoke to me more profoundly than August: Osage County, for instance, which was also about despair and the ties that bind and will not let go. But Joe Turner was also about redemption, which August was not. And it's a fantasy, and like all the best fantasy, it tells the truth slant, so we can understand it emotionally as well as intellectually, in language that rises to lyrical heights when it has to without ever losing its human plainness.

Wilson's subject is a boardinghouse in Pittsburgh in 1911, at the height of the second African diaspora, when ex-slaves and the children of slaves and freedmen left the South looking for work, looking for respect, looking for love and home and a meaning to their lives. Each of the boarders has left a lover or been left by one, has lost family or hope or their sense of self: what the old root-worker Bynam calls, without irony or sentimentality, their song. The one who has lost most is Herald Loomis, pressed into a chain gang by Joe Turner, the brother of the governor of Tennessee, and separated for seven years from his wife and baby daughter. Released, he went home again to find his wife gone and his daughter living with her grandmother. He's been on the road with his daughter ever since, looking for her Mama so he can find who he is in the world.

Every member of the cast was stellar, but Chad L. Coleman, who played Herald Loomis, and Roger Robinson, who played Bynum Walker, were almost supernaturally good. Coleman dominated the stage whenever he was on it. The man radiated unbearable pain, which he nonetheless bore, because he was a strong man and had a daughter to take care of. Robinson managed to negotiate a part that required him to be a slightly dotty old man and a genuine shaman and make both parts utterly believable. The women were wonderful, too--especially Latanya Richardson Jackson, who played Bertha Holly whose husband owned the boarding house, and Danai Gurira, who played Loomis's lost wife at the very end.

Go see it if you can manage it--there are TDF tickets available. If you can't, read it. It was Wilson's favorite of his plays, and I can see why. He sang his song in it more clearly than in any of his other Pittsburgh Cycle plays, and conveyed more about bondage and what it does to the human spirit than anything else I've ever read on the subject.

I mourn him all over again, seeing Joe Turner, and knowing there are no new August Wilsons to look forward to. If they'll keep reviving the old ones, though, there are a few I've missed, and many I'd like to see again. That man sure could write the hell out of a play.
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Blithe Spirit

In a word, my darlings, it was enchanting. Or at least Angela Lansbury and Rupert Everett and Jayne Atkinson are enchanting. Christine Ebersole as Elvira is, if I may speak quite frankly, a little off-pitch. She doesn't know how to sit, to begin with, and I couldn't escape the impression that her costume had a rather greater role in her performance than one could wish. Heaven knows fishtail gowns are trying, but one should not wear one if one cannot walk in it.

Angela Lansbury gives Madame Arcati an accent that is not only plummy, but period, and dancs around the stage as if she were a girl of 60. I do wish the costumer had given her a more becoming wig, but he more than made up for it with a cunning glittery little hat with a tassel down one side, ropes and ropes of charms, and dresses that managed to be suitably velvety and mystical without suggesting Victorian sofas.

The set is lovely, the lighting inspired, and Coward's words are Coward's words, clever and bitchy and at least as sad, at bottom, as they are funny. The inevitable side-effect of calling everyone "darling" and craving bone dry martinis will wear off by morning, I expect.