August Summer

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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

playbill.jpgOn Saturday night, Barack Obama flew up to New York with Michelle Obama for a night out, and the first couple went to the theater district. They saw August Wilson's Joe Turner's Come and Gone, fulfilling a promise Obama made to his wife during the campaign: if he won the election, he would take her to a Broadway show. Since Saturday, tickets sales for Joe Turner's Come and Gone have tripled.

I saw the production yesterday and the human theater in the lobby was almost as engaging as the onstage action: people buzzing about what the first couple wore, or where they sat, and perhaps most surreal, the usher with a thick New York accent pointing out which restroom the First Lady used at intermission.

obamas.jpgThere is nothing new or novel about this. Heads of state have been attending theater for centuries. Naturally, some people who go to the theater simply to see what the king or the president saw pay more attention to the celebrity of the event than the meaning of the play. But the Obamas' visit to the Belasco Theater is more significant, for a number of reasons.

One is that the play, which is almost three hours long, represents mainstream American theater at its most artistic and ambitious. Of his 10 plays, Joe Turner is probably Wilson's most poetic and abstract work. It's an ensemble drama about a collection of characters who wander in and out of a Pittsburg boarding house back in 1911. Joe Turner is about ordinary people trying to muddle through difficult times in an era where the world is changing faster than its characters can understand. It says a great deal that the Obamas chose to see this play as opposed to the many other Broadway offerings out there, many of which offered shorter running times, more laughs and music, not to mention bigger stars. Imagine the message that would be sent if the Obamas had decided to see Shrek: The Musical?

joeturner2.jpgThe second reason the Obamas' visit to Joe Turner is important is that this is the first Broadway production of an August Wilson play that isn't helmed by a black director. However, Bartlett Sher's production does not lack authority. The casting is excellent, the attention to the unspoken elements of Wilson's writing is spot on, and the dialogue rings with authenticity. L.A. audiences had the good fortune of seeing most of the original productions of Wilson's work at the Mark Taper Forum (thanks to Gordon Davidson) usually before they went to Broadway and this staging in no way seems out-of-tune with those productions (which Wilson himself always oversaw). Let's hope that Sher's staging and the Obama's tacit endorsement of it help accelerate the shift from Wilson being always described as a “great African American Playwright” to simply being “The Great American Playwright of the 20th Century.”

Finally, the Obamas' night at the theater (like the President's choice of a Broadway producer, Rocco Landesman, to head the NEA) is a powerful reminder that theater is one of America's strongest assets, both as art and as commerce. Quality theater, if marketed shrewdly, can attract large paying customers. My hope is that Bartlett Sher's production will extend though the summer on Broadway and possibly even tour the country.

If it doesn't though, the West Coast has two fine productions of Joe Turner which could be revived this Summer: Delroy Lindo's staging at Berkeley Rep last year, and closer to home, a 2006 Fountain Theater production that was almost as strong as the Broadway one. There's always a good reason to revive Joe Turner; the attention of the Obamas' visit to the theater, makes it almost a necessity.

August Wilson's Joe Turner's Come and Gone runs through June 14 at the Belasco Theatre on Broadway.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.

Banner image: Charles Erickson