When my theater companion suddenly canceled and I was scrambling to find someone who would want to join me, for this sensitive production of “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” I was surprised that people didn’t know who August Wilson was. Wilson who died in 2005 (2 October at age 60), won two Pulitzer Prizes for Drama and is best known for the ten plays which make up “The Pittsburgh Cycle.”

You might be thinking what could possibly be interesting in Pittsburgh? Wilson was born in Pittsburgh and he writes about what he knows. Wilson’s ten plays are each set in a different decade and illustrate the changing situation for African Americans in America. He won the Pulitzer for the 1985 “Fences” and the 1990 “The Piano Lesson.”

“Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” is about the 1910s. When this play went to Broadway, Delroy Lindo played Herald Loomis and Angela Bassett was his wife, Martha. The play tells about the Great Migration of African Americans from the South. The title comes from an old blues song:

Joe Turner

They tell me Joe Turner’s come and gone They tell me Joe Turner’s come and gone  (Oh, Lordy) Got my man and gone.

He come with forty links of chain He come with forty links of chain (Oh, Lordy) Got my man and gone.

The song is about true events and Wilson’s play expands and explains the possible background behind the stereotype of an African American husband deserting his wife and children. Instead of disappearing to shirk his responsibilities, we come to understand that a white man, Joe Turner, has been trumping up charges and giving stiff sentences for minor legal infractions in order to build up free labor chain gang style. If you had the right connections, you could order up your own labor crew in those days. The men would then just disappear, abducted and enslaved. In today’s media driven world, that wouldn’t be unlike the three unfortunate women who were kidnapped and raped in Cleveland.  No doubt women were subjected to such treatment as well during those dangerous times.

Yet Wilson begins his play in a boardinghouse. Scenic designer John Iavocelli’s dusky brick red and sunflower yellow set is cozy. This isn’t a flophouse for losers. This is a respectable home run by Seth (Keith David) and Bertha (Lillias White) Holly. Seth complains about Bynum Walker (Glynn Turman) and his folk rituals that involve a dead pigeon. We don’t get to see his doings in the garden and Seth is much more concerned about Bynum stepping on his prized vegetables. Any gardener can easily understand that anxiety. However in Seth’s case, it’s not just green thumb pride.

Seth worries about money and earns a bit on the side making things for a white traveling salesman, Rutherford Selig (Raynor Scheine). Rutherford is a people finder because he travels around. Bynum uses magic to bind people. Along comes Herald Loomis (John Douglas Thompson) with his young daughter Zonia Loomis (Skye Barrett). Herald is dressed in a dark long coat. He’s the man who was abducted by Joe Turner. For seven years, he was on a chain gang thought constantly of escaping and finding his wife and daughter. He found his daughter, left with her grandmother, but he now seeks his wife.

The play exposes the differing morals of the African American community in 1910s as compared to the accepted standards of the American society at large and each of the characters is attempting to define themselves in a legal system that barely recognizes them as people. The concept of migration considered–that of African American individuals looking for economic opportunities and people forced to move without the benefit of contacting their loved ones. Migration and identity are both tied to the racial discrimination that is in flux after the end of slavery.

At the boarding house, a young man, Jeremy Furlow (Gabriel Brown), lives life without long-term planning and takes love where he can find it. He finds it with Mattie Campbell (January Lavoy), a former slave who can’t quite adapt to independence and without a master, she needs a man to tell her what to do. We also see other women who have learned to survive alone.

Director Phylicia Rashad infuses this production with warm humor, more than you’d expect in what ultimately is a tragedy of a whole community.  Yet you get the impression that all will survive even when love does not. Under Rashad, you see Thompson’s Loomis as a husband you might not want to return to. He’s bitter and burnt down to his soul with hate and anger. Not a spark of joyous love survives, even in the presence of his daughter. He’s a man still in survival mode with an armor built over seven hard years. That contrasts sharply with the wisdom of David’s Seth Holly. Seth knows the precarious nature of being black in a white world, you can hear that in his dealings with Rutherford and in his warnings to the more careless Jeremy Furlow (Gabriel Brown).

Wilson brings the tragedy of those years to us in a lyrical language, like the blues with a buoyant beat, softening it all with a bit of magic. “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” continues at the Mark Taper Forum until 9 June 2013. $20-$70. Tuesdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m.; Sundays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. For more information, call (213) 628-2772 or visit their website.

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