The song is surprisingly muted in the Lincoln Center Theater revival of August Wilson's Joe Turner's Come and Gone, which makes history as the first Broadway production of the late African-American dramatist to be directed by a white person, in this case the formidably gifted Bartlett Sher. In fact, race need not be the issue, as those who saw the fine National Theatre premiere several decades ago of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom can attest - a staging directed by the white British director Howard Davies that was fully attuned to its author's singular blues. Sher certainly connects with a play that is very much about disconnection, about a people, race, and, indeed, country needing and waiting to be whole.
But Joe Turner remains arguably the trickiest in its dramatist's unparalleled canon of works chronicling the black American experience throughout the 20th century, this one following Gem of the Ocean chronologically if not in the order in which the plays were actually written. (The 1988 Broadway premiere marked Wilson's third New York outing, after Ma Rainey and Fences.) How do you communicate the mystery at both the heart of the itinerant Herald Loomis, the wanderer who appears unbidden at the Pittsburgh boarding house where the play is set, and at the cataclysmic core of a work that is about nothing less than the ties that connect a people to its history, even as the plot specifics involve a man looking for his errant wife? More than any other Wilson play, Joe Turner invokes metaphysics and ritual on the way to an ending that seems at once shocking and absolutely right. As the glitter dust falls to the stage in the show's closing moments, we are privy to our own image of the "shining man" spoken of in the text, which makes it a shame that more of the production doesn't glisten on cue.
Like most of Wilson's plays, Joe Turner is deliciously deceptive, its easy reliance on good talk and quotidian detail giving way to the extraordinary verbal arias and shifts in theatrical emphasis that land both the audience, and the play's characters, somewhere notably different by play's end. But for the project to work, we need to get under the skins of characters who come before us with a quest, or a song, or a desire to be made whole. Sher sketches the outlines of the play, much as Michael Yeargan's set gives the contours of the rooming house, Awake and Sing-style, as opposed to the entirety of the place itself. I was nonetheless left wanting to be taken someplace, in accordance with journeys, both spiritual and literal, that connect up this stage full of people marked by loss and severance. But just when you're expecting Joe Turner to rise up and overwhelm you, much as Herald Loomis is seen to be dramatically remaking himself, the production stops short of the operatic epiphany that was presumably intended, Herald's spiritual emancipation akin to that of, say, Porgy, with Wilson the one singing the blues.
It might help if Chad L. Coleman, inheriting a role originated in New York by Delroy Lindo, conveyed more beyond the shadowy glower that brings him and his 11-year-old daughter to the door of the dwelling run by Seth Holly (Ernie Hudson, in the production's most genially expansive turn) and his wife, Bertha (a likable if sometimes overeager LaTanya Richardson Jackson). "A respectable home," this northern refuge is soon playing host to stories of slavery and a way of working all but alien to Seth, who talks of not knowing either about cotton or of the multiple familial fractures that drive the play-it's no accident that the one white character, a miscast Arliss Howard's Rutherford Selig, is a so-called "people-fin