A Magnificent ‘Joe Turner’s Come and Gone’ Heralds the Huntington’s Jubilant Homecoming 

Patrese D. McClain and James Ricardo Milord (foreground) and cast in ‘Joe Turner’s Come and Gone’ at The Huntington.

‘August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone’ by August Wilson. Directed by Lili-Anne Brown; Arnel Sancianco, Scenic Design; Samantha C. Jones, Costume Design; Jason Lynch, Lighting Design; Aubrey Dube, Sound Design. Presented by The Huntington Theatre through November 13.

by Shelley A. Sackett

What a pleasure it is to have the Huntington Theatre Company back. With its sleek Narragansett Green walls, gold domed ceiling and cherry red extra legroom seats, an always pleasurable theatrical experience is now also one full of creature comforts. Even more stunning, however, is the magnificent production of August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, with which the Huntington christened its reopening. If Joe Turner’s footprints lingered long after he had gone, it’s because Wilson’s unforgettable presence (and titular title as the Huntington’s creative patron saint) enveloped the stage.

Other than sporadic trouble understanding and hearing some of the actors, the production is flawless. Arnel Sancianco’s set captures the pressed oak Victorian glory of an architectural era resplendent in its attention to eye candy detail, including a grand staircase and welcoming dining room table. A crystal clear sound system does justice to Aubrey Dube’s acoustic period selections (always a pleasure to hear Mississippi John Hurt sounding authentic but not like he’s singing underwater). And Samantha C. Jones’s costumes (especially the women’s hats) and Jason Lynch’s lighting (which manages to track the sun’s movement) are icing on the cake.

And that’s before we get to the cast’s universally brilliant acting and Lili-Anne Brown’s spot-on, outstanding direction.

First, though, a little historical background is in order. The title, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, refers to Joe Turney, the brother of former Tennessee Governor Peter Turney. In the late 19th Century, Joe Turney was responsible for transporting black prisoners from Memphis to the Tennessee State Penitentiary, located in Nashville. Instead, Turney abused his role by running a network of “convict leasing.” He was also known for swooping down on innocent freed blacks and illegally enslaving them for seven years, often to work on his own farm. When men turned up missing in black communities, word quickly spread that “Joe Turner’s come and gone.”

Against this harsh backdrop of the Jim Crow lawless post-Civil War America, Wilson introduces us to his cast of vivid characters.

It’s 1911 and Seth and Bertha Holly run a “respectable” boardinghouse in Pittsburgh. Seth (played with pitch perfect comedic timing by Maurice Emmanuel Parent), its owner, inherited the property and business from his parents. He was born to free African-American parents in the North and is a real killjoy. Set in his ways, he is happy to assimilate to the degree he is allowed, and is economically shrewd and heartlessly capitalistic.

Bertha (the sublime Shannon Lamb), his wife of 25 years, is a loving mother to her boardinghouse family. Although she knows her place, she manages to manipulate Seth’s decision-making in subtle yet effective ways. Love and laughter get her by. She embraces Northern ways (including Christianity), but her heart and spirit remain tied to her African ancestors.

Bynum Walker, a 60ish “conjuror” who practices healing arts with herbs, incense and song, is Seth’s foil. As portrayed by Robert Cornelius, Bynum is both as large as a giant and as gentle as a lamb. He is as grounded in his roots and heritage as Seth is in his denial of them. In touch with his inner soul and identity, he offers to help those lost to themselves and others with his powers to “bind.” Bynum is part shaman, philosopher and therapist — and all compassion. He has lived at the Holly’s for a while and moves about as comfortably as if he were a blood relation.  

Jeremy Furlow (an exuberant Stewart Evan Smith), 25, is trying to find his identity as a member of the younger generation of newly liberated slaves. He is footloose and itching to travel the nation with his guitar and fancy green suit. In the meantime, he works anywhere that will hire him building whatever needs building. He naively chafes at the racial injustice he encounters and will accept the company of any woman who accepts his as he tries to find his perfect mate.

Robert Cornelius, Shannon Lamb, Maurice Emmanuel Parent and Stewart Evan Smith

The only white character in the play, Rutherford Selig (a suitably sycophantic and tone deaf Lewis D. Wheeler) is a peddler known as the “people finder.” He was also a fugitive slave finder, like his father (his grandfather ran the first ships, we’re told, that captured Africans and brought them to America to become slaves). He acts as middleman for Seth’s hand-crafted dustpans and keeps a tight record of everyone he meets on his travels.

Mattie Campbell (an earnest Al-nisa Petty), a young woman who finds Seth’s when she seeks Bynum’s help in binding her to her missing boyfriend, is disappointed in the life that has left her a bereaved mother of two dead babies and a jilted girlfriend. By contrast, the last thing Molly Cunningham (the slinky Dela Meskienyar), another tenant in her mid-20s, wants is to be bound to anyone or anything — except maybe her mama. She is independent, spoiled and totally aware of the power her striking looks and wardrobe afford her.

Into this ersatz family wanders Herald Loomis (brilliantly embodied by James Milford), a former deacon and odd man who dons an overcoat in August, and his skinny 11-year-old daughter Zonia (Gray Flaherty at last Sunday’s matinée). He has the skittish mannerisms of one suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. He has been travelling from town to town, looking for his wife, Martha Loomis. The last time he saw her was 11 years ago, right before Joe Turner captured and enslaved him for seven years. By the time he was freed, Martha had fled. He’s been on the road looking for her for four years, Zonia in tow.

Wilson is a maestro at creating masterpieces that illustrate the Black human condition in America. Armed with this rich palette of characters and his magic wand of a brush, he paints a picture rich in both human emotion and historical context. He doesn’t polemicize, castigate or lecture, yet he makes his points about racial injustice, Black diaspora, migration and the irredeemable evil and gall of kidnapping and slavery. His wholly fleshed out characters let us through the keyholes of their lives and by the end of the play, we have connected the dots.

The specific plot twists and turns are too numerous (and contain too many spoilers) to detail here, and Wilson is more about the journey than the destination anyhow. By the end of the almost three hour (with intermission) play, the audience has experienced the pain and promise of the post-slavery years and the power of community to heal and revive a broken and lost soul.

Everyone at the boardinghouse is searching for their missing piece. Unspeakable horrors and disruptions untethered men like Herald Loomis, who has lost his sense of who he is because he cannot remember who he was before he was enslaved. For men like Seth, who has only known life in the North, slavery and its consequences are more hearsay than heartache. He’s more concerned with keeping what’s his in the face of the increased competition post-emancipation northern migration has wrought. He knows the system is, and always will be, rigged against him. His mission is to squeeze through the loopholes unnoticed and differentiate himself from these newly arrived migrants.

Seth is also a pragmatic man who doesn’t feel the need to seek meaning or purpose by way of spirituality or a return to his African roots. Christianity and churchgoing is as much about fitting in as it is about religion.  Of Bynum’s shaman-like behavior, he says, “All that old mumbo jumbo nonsense. I don’t know why I put up with it.”

Bynum, on the other hand, is at peace with himself and the world as he finds it. He believes himself to be part of a “grand design,” a belief that ultimately allows him to “swallow any adversity.” For Bynum, his spirituality and helping others re-find themselves become a way of making sense and finding his own purpose in an unpredictable world.

Straddling the two is Bertha, who is as down to earth and practical as Seth but takes comfort in Bynum’s old forms of African healing and mystical practices. One of the highlights of the play is the joyful “Juba” dance around the kitchen table where all but Herald participate and lose themselves in a moment of communal ecstasy. (The Juba dance was originally brought by Kongo slaves to Charleston, S.C.).

By the play’s end, Loomis (and several others) have found their inner song and are on the path to exploring their identity, and the audience standing has found itself in thunderous applause. Wilson’s words and spirit spin a magic that will resonate long after the last cheer has faded. Highly recommended.

For tickets and information, go to: https://www.huntingtontheatre.org/

Huntington Theatre’s ‘The Bluest Eye’ Is A Triumph

Cast of The Huntington Theatre’s production of The Bluest Eye by Lydia R. Diamond

by Shelley A. Sackett

Brimming with sparkling ensemble acting, inspired staging and soulful song and dance, Huntington Theatre’s The Bluest Eye packs a wallop. Thanks to Lydia R. Diamond’s faithful yet nuanced adaptation, Toni Morrison’s groundbreaking début novel about two poor Black families in 1940s Lorain, Ohio is brought to the stage with all its poetry, pathos and humor intact. You can almost feel Morrison’s presence in the audience, beaming pride and approval.

The story is neither easy nor pretty. Nor is it sugar-coated. A harrowing (and timely) tale about the insidious effects of racism, the 80-minute intermission-less play explores what happens to people — especially children — whose identities and self-images become distorted by the relentless oppression and cruelty they suffer.

What happens to that marginalized little Black girl who feels neglected, lonely and ugly? Whose hand local (white) shopkeepers won’t touch? Whose home life is abusive and unsafe? Whose only frame of reference for happiness, friendship and family harmony is the Dick and Jane primer she reads every day in school, the one about white, blue-eyed, blond Jane and her adoring, white parents?

Brittany-Laurelle, Hadar Busia-Singleton, and Alexandria King

From the get go, there is a feeling of community and engagement among the actors and between actors and audience. Performed on a raised, round stage between two semi-circles of audience members, the (masked) physical immediacy and intimacy heightens the mood. No one is hidden; no one can hide.

The play opens with two feisty preteen sisters discussing local gossip. Claudia (Brittany-Laurelle, who brings a powerful but contained individuality to the role) and Frieda (Alexandria King in a magnificently physical and expressive, punchy performance) will act as narrators and guides, and their sassy, lighthearted banter is the perfect foil to the heaviness of the story that will unfold. Like vocal choreography, their voices dance with and around each other, weaving a single tapestry from many strands.

Their main topic of conversation is the Breedlove family, the ugliest family in Lorain. “Their ugliness came from a conviction that they accepted without question,” Claudia explains. Eleven-year-old Pecola Breedlove (played by the hypnotic Hadar Busia-Singleton, who manages to infuse her unbearably sad character with a whisper of hope) knows the world finds her Blackness ugly. “How do you get somebody to love you?” she asks over and over.

But she has a plan. She has figured out the key to being lovable. All she needs are blue eyes, as blue as Jane’s and Shirley Temple’s. “Then the teachers would see me and people would have to be nice to me,” she explains matter-of-factly.

R foreground: Ramona Lisa Alexander, Lindsley Howard, McKenzie Frye

Claudia and Frieda’s recollections and narrations are the backbone of the play, told with overlying reenactments of the various scenarios that have shaped and marked their and Pecola’s families. Mrs. Breedlove (McKenzie Frye) is a cleaning woman with a bum foot and missing front tooth who would go to the movies and dream of looking like Jean Harlow. Her husband Cholly (Greg Alverez Reid) suffered the kind of loss, humiliation and violence that doesn’t excuse his inexcusable acts, but at least provides context. Beneath their toughened exteriors, each carries the weight of unbearable despair. Together, they are a ticking time bomb, Pecola its collateral damage.

By comparison, Claudia, Frieda and their Mama (played by Ramona Lisa Alexander as unyielding and fussy yet kindhearted) lead a life of relative ease and stability. These three are the source of the play’s lightness and humor. As Claudia, Brittany-Laurelle brings down the house in the reenactment of a scene when she received a blond, white baby doll as a gift. To her mother’s disbelief and horror, rather than covet it, she destroys it, but only after she has humiliated and terrorized it. She hates its so-called beauty. “What was I supposed to do with that?” she asks without irony.

Through a series of events that would include spoilers, Pecola’s prayers for blue eyes and all that means seem to be answered by the magic of Soaphead Church, a charlatan soothsayer, played brilliantly by Brian D. Coats. Yet, it is at such a steep price that we are left grieving for this child whose innocent light has been extinguished.

Under Awoye Timpo’s direction, The Bluest Eye brings a lot of extras to the table. She makes wonderful use of a trio of women who appear throughout the production, imbuing them with many of the gestures and props familiar to fans of Alvin Ailey’s “Revelations.” They are welcome palette cleansers, acting as part Greek chorus, part harpies, and part goddesses. The interweaving of a capella spirituals (Frye is a knockout) and choreography (especially the slow-motion battle scene between Cholly and Mrs. Breedlove) is inspired and welcome.

The Boston theater scene is replete with many productions that are well worth seeing. Only a handful rise to the level of “must see.” The Bluest Eye is one of them.

‘The Bluest Eye’ – Based on the book by Toni Morrison, adapted for stage by Lydia R. Diamond, Dramaturgy by Sandy Alexandre. Directed by Awoye Timpo; Set Design by Jason Ardizzone-West; Costume Design by Dede Ayite and Rodrigo Muñoz; Lighting Design by Adam Honoré; Sound Design by Aubrey Dube; Original Music by Justin Ellington; Choreography by Kurt Douglas; Music Direction by David Freeman Coleman. Presented by Huntington Theatre Company at Boston Center for the Arts through March 26. Digital recordings available Feb. 14 through April 9.For tickets and information, go to: https://www.huntingtontheatre.org/