This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.
August Wilson's come and gone. The playwright's death last fall was such a huge blow to contemporary American theater, that it still hasn't completely sunk in. For twenty years, Wilson consistently turned out vibrant new plays, and in places like New Haven and here in Los Angeles, it became such a ritual--yet another new August Wilson play at the Taper--that it was easy to take for granted...
And to be honest, some of this was due to the fact that Wilson's last three plays were not quite as vibrant as his first dramas. 2000's King Hedley II and 2003's Gem of the Ocean were engaging, but flawed works--and sadly, Radio Golf, Wilson's final play, completed just last year, was a disappointment. The production seen at the Taper was solid, but the text itself--despite an interesting topic--just didn't add up. Wilson constantly revised and re-revised his work, and while his cancer prevented him from working in-person on the LA Radio Golf, perhaps he was still tweaking it to the end, so that future productions may be improved. Still, it completed the 10-play cycle Wilson boldly envisioned: one drama for each decade of the 20th century.
Reading about Wilson in these last few months, both the current New York Times and New Yorker critics singled out Wilson's third play, Joe Turner's Come and Gone, as his masterpiece. Many would argue that highest honors should go to Wilson's two Pulitzer winners, Fences or The Piano Lesson, but a new production of Joe Turner, currently running at the Fountain Theatre in Hollywood, makes a pretty strong case for Wilson's play that was originally titled Mill Hand's Lunch Bucket.
Mill Hand's Lunch Bucket is a painting by Romare Bearden that inspired Wilson to write his play, but he renamed it Joe Turner's Come and Gone after a W.C. Handy ditty that's sung throughout the play by the character of Bynum Walker.
In this production, Bynum Walker emerges as the central character--something that didn't happen in the 1986 play's first productions. Then, the character was overshadowed by the role of Loomis, a drifter who's stay in a 1911 boarding house triggers the play's action. Loomis is a great role, which was first played by Charles Dutton and then Delroy Lindo on Broadway; but here, despite the powerful Bernard Addison as Loomis, Bynum Walker shines brightest.
Most of this is due to an incomparable performance by Adolphus Ward. The character of Bynum tinkers in voodoo and other powers--he claims to be able to "bind;" people together. Somehow Mr. Ward has conjured that magic, binding himself to the role with such authenticity that suggests Wilson wrote the part with him in mind. The quivers in his voice, the absent stares, these and other nuances are enacted effortlessly; and in the long, Act I monologue--where Wilson's background as a poet can be heard--Ward's conviction makes the colorful language seem natural instead of overwrought. Like Phylicia Rashad's bravura turn as Aunt Ester in Gem of the Ocean at the Taper three years ago, this is a performance that single-handedly showcases Wilson's artistry at its best.
But the other reason Bynum stands out as a character is the benefit of time. Seeing the works that followed Joe Turner, it's clear now that Bynum's spirit--like Aunt Ester's--haunts Pittsburgh's Hill District, the setting for most of the plays in Wilson's cycle. Bynum represents a connection to Africa and its old customs that, try as the other characters might to ignore--as they bustle around as industrious Americans--cannot be severed entirely.
Ward is just one part of a strong cast that populates Ben Bradley's simple, yet handsome staging. The more mature actors like Ward, Addison, Gregg Daniel and Lorey Hayes (as Seth and Bertha Holly) exhibit a bit more assurance then the younger cast members, but there is not a sub-par performance to be found on the Fountain Theatre stage.
Bynum Walker speaks throughout the play about things so brilliant that they "shines; like new money." This production does just that; but what's more, it polishes Wilson's entire body of work after recent years when the playwright's legacy has not been shining its brightest. As the first local production of an August Wilson play since his death, this Joe Turner, running through May 7***, serves as a timely reminder of how much we've lost--but more importantly, how much we still have.
This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.
***The Fountain Theatre's production of Joe Turner has just been extended through July 2.