An American Classic

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Okay, I'll admit it. I wasn't going to go see Joe Turner's Come and Gone at the Taper.

I thought, you know, I've seen it. Yes, it's one of my favorite August Wilson plays. Yes, it is an American classic but, I reasoned, it's a bit like eating kale or seeing King Lear -- because when August Wilson taps you on the shoulder and says he's got a story to tell you -- well you're in for quite a journey.

Thankfully, I came to my senses and you should too. The production at the Taper, directed by Phylicia Rashad, not only does honor to Mr. Wilson's words and legacy, it gives us a hint at how these plays are going to age and grow.

Sitting again, with Mr. Wilson's words, is a bit like watching a magician. You know the trick. He almost announces it, 'I'm going to chronicle this community, this moment in our history - all within the confines of this Pittsburgh boarding house. I'm going to let the characters be themselves and be archetypes. I'm going to make their words - their songs. And I'm going to draw you into this complicated and beautiful world.' Part of the fun is that the magician tells you what he's going to do before he does it and then he amazes you.

Part of this alchemy is how effortlessly Wilson deals with the mechanics of time and place. Like the ringing telephone in Jitney, the Pittsburgh boarding house of Joe Turner's Come and Gone serves as a crossroads for the whole community. The comings and goings, bring not only the stories but helping us mark time - not only 1911 and this post-slavery reality but also the passing of a week. When rent's due and when a character returns each Saturday, provide not only the rhythm but the logic grounding the audience and the characters in time.

When you go see it, spend some time watching the audience. I know that sounds like strange advice for the theater but Mr. Wilson played the audience. Watch how he moves them from jubilation to fear to laughter. You can feel it as he fills the theater in one moment with dance and the Holy Ghost, in the next with the threat of violence, and then slips into a possession of the Middle Passage. Mr. Wilson knew his audience, in part because he spent so much time watching them. In his know famous string of co-productions, Mr. Wilson would follow these plays through the regional theaters and unlike so many playwrights who disappear after opening - he sat with them. Lurking in the back of the audience constantly tuning and refining. Hearing these words at the Taper, a stop on so many of his play's journeys, I half expect to see him sitting in the back.

Don't let this one pass you by. Ms. Rashad and this stellar company get this play and you won't regret spending another night in the theater with Mr. Wilson's poetry.

Joe Turner's Come and Gone plays at the Mark Taper Forum through June 9.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Run time: 2 hours and 30 minutes with an intermission.

Banner image: (L-R) January LaVoy, Glynn Turman, Gabriel Brown, Lillias White, Skye Barrett and Keith David in August Wilson's Joe Turner's Come and Gone at the Mark Taper Forum. Photo: Craig Schwartz