Some 25 years ago I was attending a national theatre conference on the East Coast. After one of the endless panel discussions that mark these type of events, several friends and I were engaged in an impromptu political discussion about the state of the world and the nature of power: who has it, who should have it, why things will or won’t change, etc…From behind me I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned to see a large man with an inviting face. “I heard you talking about cultural imperialism,” he said. “I like that. My name is August Wilson.”
I had heard of August Wilson. At that time he was enjoying the success of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, the second of his plays and the first to catapult him into the national spotlight. What I did not know at the time, of course, was that he was destined to become one of our greatest playwrights.
I should have guessed. During the course of our ensuing conversation, it became immediately clear to me that not only was August Wilson intensely interested in life, but that he approached every encounter as if it was a great learning opportunity. He was a self-educated man and carried himself with that particular brand of confidence that comes with the enormous will and stamina that marks someone who has single-handedly overcome huge challenges. Raised on the backstreets of Pittsburgh in a racially hostile environment, Wilson had found his refuge in books. By the early age of 14 he had begun to imagine himself as a writer, a gift he privately nurtured in the face of intense resistance from his family, teachers and friends. He immersed himself in poetry, developing a language capable of creating surprise, precision and rhetorical magic. When he applied this language to creating characters, he found his voice as a playwright.
Driven by a growing desire to depict the experience of African Americans over the course of the 20th century, August Wilson became not only a brilliant theatre artist but also a pre-eminent cultural anthropologist. His ten-play cycle, completed just before the end of his life, is nothing less than a living history, an epic vision that marries the struggles of an oppressed people to an ecstatic celebration of their humanity. He has taken stereotypes and, with the power of his mighty pen, turned them into illuminating archetypes.
No artist has been more affected by the work of Mr. Wilson than Delroy Lindo, the esteemed actor and director of this evening’s show. To hear Delroy speak about August is to hear a man who has been personally inspired: inspired to understand the playwright’s work, to continue his legacy, to deepen our collective understanding of the black experience. Nobody knows Joe Turner better than Delroy, and it is a privilege to welcome him back to our theatre to tackle this great play.
Since the establishment of the National Endowment for the Arts in 1965, non-profit theatres have sprouted in cities large and small across this country. The IRS recognizes over 2,000 such theatres, each unique to its own community. Some produce musicals, some only classics, some enjoy resident companies, some perform exclusively for children.
While individually we all in our own way strive to nourish audiences in our communities and to support the work of wonderful local artists, together we make up a large web that, in its entirety, constitutes a national American theatre.
One of the special ways in which we function as a national entity is by creating a shared body of work that can be seen by theatre lovers regardless of where they live. I love that if one of you calls your theatre-loving cousin in Chicago, there is a good chance you have both seen a production by Tony Kushner or a recent production of a Molière. August Wilson’s work is remarkable among contemporary playwrights for the sheer number of productions it has received in cities, not only across this country, but throughout the world. It is time that we share his work with all of you.
It is such an honor to have a work by August Wilson—often referred to as one of the most important playwrights of our time—on a Berkeley Rep stage. His ten-play cycle, of which Joe Turner is the second, gives us a unique perspective on the last century. His beautiful prose and his richly defined characters have inspired a generation of playwrights.
Wilson was more than a playwright, however. He used his renown to initiate difficult discussions within the larger theatre community about race and culture. He was an activist who demanded soul-searching and candor from his colleagues and friends. Frankly, he embodied what we at Berkeley Rep value in the theatre: a keen intellect, a creative spirit, a masterful control of his craft and a fearless willingness to engage in civic dialogue. We are very proud to give you, our audience, an opportunity to step into the world of August Wilson.
Enjoy the show.
It is August in Pittsburgh, 1911. The sun falls out of heaven like a stone. The fires of the steel mill rage with a combined sense of industry and progress. Barges loaded with coal and iron ore trudge up the river to the mill towns that dot the Monongahela and return with fresh, hard, gleaming steel. The city flexes its muscles. Men throw countless bridges across the rivers, lay roads, and carve tunnels through the hills sprouting with houses.
From the deep and the near South the sons and daughters of newly freed African slaves wander into the city. Isolated, cut off from memory, having forgotten the names of the gods and only guessing at their faces, they arrive dazed and stunned, their heart kicking in their chest with a song worth singing. They arrive carrying Bibles and guitars, their pockets lined with dust and fresh hope, marked men and women seeking to scrape from the narrow, crooked cobbles and the fiery blasts of the coke furnace a way of bludgeoning and shaping the malleable parts of themselves into a new identity as free men of definite and sincere worth.
Foreigners in a strange land, they carry as part and parcel of their baggage a long line of separation and dispersement which informs their sensibilities and marks their conduct as they search for ways to reconnect, to reassemble, to give clear and luminous meaning to the song which is both a wail and a whelp of joy.
—August Wilson, the introduction to Joe Turner’s Come and Gone
by Claire Cox
Originally published in Huntington Theatre Company’s 2005–06 Limelight Magazine.
August Wilson was born in Pittsburgh’s Hill District in 1945. The predominantly black neighborhood’s history contains within it the massive migration of former slaves to northern industrial cities at the turn of the century, the cultural flourishing of the Jazz Age, the false promises of urban renewal of the 1950s, the tumultuous fervor of the Black Power movement and of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, as well as the disrepair that comes from cycles of poverty. Today, residents of the Hill struggle with unemployment and a longstanding divestment in the neighborhood’s resources, but there remains an ever-mounting commitment, begun in the 1970s with the cry of “Rebuild the Hill,” to the kind of bottom-up planning that renews a neighborhood to the benefit of its inhabitants. Wilson lived on the Hill for thirty years; it is no surprise that he chose this area, rich with the history of a people, as the setting for his epic ten-play cycle.
The son of a white German father and a black mother, Wilson remembers his father as “mostly not there…The culture I learned in my mother’s household was black.” He had a high I.Q. and an obvious gift for language, as well as his mother’s unwavering faith that he could do anything. “I wanted to be the best at whatever I did,” he recalls. This trait persisted into adulthood: “when I sit down to write, I want to write the best play that’s ever been written. Sometimes that’s a fearsome place to stand, but that’s when you call on your courage.”
He encountered flagrant racism in a Catholic high school that was reinforced by faculty who disciplined Wilson for brawling and ignored his tormentors. “There was a note on my desk every single day. It said, ‘Go home, nigger.’” He transferred to a vocational school, where the curriculum was “I swear, like fifth-grade work;” he dropped out two years before graduation, having decided that he would become a writer.
Wilson had already worked as a dishwasher, a gardener, and a short-order cook, all before age 15. Getting little from his school studies, he educated himself in the library, where he guesses he read close to three hundred books. He was, he says, “searching for something you can claim as yours.” Just before his 19th birthday in 1964, Wilson bought his first typewriter, a bulky Royal Standard he hauled from downtown up to his apartment on the Hill. He sat down and typed every possible variation of his given name, Frederick August Kittel (his mother’s maiden name was Wilson), settling finally on August Wilson. “Anything you can name,” he has said, “you can control and define; that’s what the power of naming is.” With this, he set out on a literary journey that would lead him to become one of the most important dramatists in the American theatre.
In the fall of 1965 Wilson came home with an old record he’d bought for a nickel, whose fading, typewritten label read, “Bessie Smith: Nobody in Town Can Bake a Sweet Jelly Roll Like Mine.” He played it 22 times in a row, and wrote later, “The universe stuttered and everything fell to a new place.” The blues are “the best literature we have,” he says. The music he heard on the record “made me look at the world differently. It gave the people in the rooming house where I lived, and also my mother, a history I didn’t know they had. It was the beginning of my consciousness that I was the carrier of some very valuable antecedents.”
For the next 15 years, Wilson mostly wrote poetry. It wasn’t until 1978, when he left the Hill and moved to St. Paul, Minnesota, that he found his bearings as a playwright. “There weren’t many black folks around,” he says. “In that silence, I could hear the language for the first time…I got lonely and missed those guys and sort of created them. I could hear the music.”
by Kyle Brenton
Originally published in Huntington Theatre Company’s 2005–06 Limelight Magazine.
August Wilson’s 20th century begins with a knock at the door. Citizen Barlow has come north from Alabama to Pittsburgh in search of a better life, but has found nothing but discrimination, inequality, and racism. He is a good man, but the world in which he lives has nurtured within him a rage, and his rage led him to theft—he stole a bucket of nails from the mill. An innocent man has died for that crime, and in Gem of the Ocean (set in 1904; completed in 2004) Citizen Barlow comes to 1839 Wylie Avenue, the home of Aunt Ester, for redemption. Aunt Ester, whose memory stretches back nearly 300 years to the arrival of African slaves on this continent, is a spiritual healer. It is within her power to take Citizen to the City of Bones, a ghostly metropolis beneath the Atlantic Ocean, where his soul can be cleansed of guilt. But that journey could be put in jeopardy if Caesar Wilks, the black lawman who uses his authority like a cudgel, continues his rampage of evictions in the neighborhood. It may ultimately be beyond even Aunt Ester’s power to calm Caesar’s rage.
Seven years later, the migration of African Americans northward continues apace. In Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (set in 1911; completed in 1988), Seth and Bertha Holly operate a boarding house that serves as a temporary home to those who are trying to find a new beginning. Their oddest tenant is Bynum, a shaman whose song has the power to bind people to new destinies, and to each other. Into the boarding house wanders Herald Loomis, a man with a dark and violent past who is in search of his wife, torn from him before he left the South. When the residents of the house engage in their Sunday night “juba” ritual—an ecstatic dance with African roots, led by Bynum—Loomis is overtaken by the Holy Ghost and experiences a terrifying vision of the Atlantic transforming into a sea of bones that surge inexorably toward America.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (set in 1927; completed in 1984) presents a very different vision of African-American life. In a Chicago recording studio, a group of musicians await the arrival of the great blues songstress Ma Rainey. Ma is a notoriously difficult performer, who uses her unique talent as leverage to create a comfortable life for herself. The newest member of her band, Levee, is a trumpet player who nurtures a fire, both for a new kind of music and a new kind of life. Levee rejects Ma’s accommodations to the racist music industry, and demands what he sees as his due. The situation, tense from the beginning, finally erupts into violence as, through Levee, a new kind of world is born.
Nine years later, back in Pittsburgh, The Piano Lesson (set in 1936; completed in 1990; winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama) asks the vital question: what is to be done with the past? When the Charles family migrated north, they brought with them their most prized possession: a piano with the history of their family intricately carved by one of their ancestors. Berniece keeps the piano in her home, but will not play it. Her brother, Boy Willie, has a different plan. He has a chance to buy back the land their family worked on as slaves, but the only way he can get the money is to sell the piano, which Berniece will never allow. The weight of the past sits heavily on the entire Charles family, and as the conflict between the siblings escalates, a ghostly visitation forces Berniece to play the piano once more, in an act of exorcism.
“Who killed Floyd Barton?” is the question that animates Seven Guitars (set in 1948; completed in 1996). Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton is going to be the next big thing. His hot new song is being played on every radio in the Hill District, and once he’s gotten his guitar out of the pawn shop, he’s headed to Chicago to record a follow-up. But sometimes life gets in the way of plans—the money he is owed evaporates and his guitar seems farther away than ever. When he is forced to turn to theft, he meets an untimely end at the hands of the unlikeliest of characters: Hedley, an old man who, in a tuberculosis-induced delirium, mistakes Floyd for a man he believes owed his father money. Hedley brutally slashes Floyd across the throat, tragically cutting short a promising life.
Fences (set in 1957; completed in 1987; winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama) contains perhaps Wilson’s most tragic figure: Troy Maxson. Troy was a titan of the Negro Baseball Leagues, who, after spending time in jail, couldn’t put the pieces of his life back together. Turned away from the major leagues and with his most productive years behind him, Troy is forced to become a garbage man to support his family—his loving wife Rose, high-school-aged son Cory, brain-damaged brother Gabriel, and Lyons, a grown son from a previous relationship. Crushed under the weight of his responsibilities, Troy turns to another woman for comfort, and when she dies in childbirth, he brings home a daughter who is now left to Rose to raise. At the same time, Cory is recruited for college football, but Troy cannot bring himself to allow Cory to play—a mixture of stubbornness, envy, and fear leads Troy to sabotage his own son’s future.
Urban renewal and the demolishing of the Lower Hill loom over Two Trains Running (set in 1969; completed in 1992). The building that houses Memphis Lee’s lunch counter is about to be bought out by the city, but Memphis refuses to settle for a modest buyout—he wants $25,000 from the city. Hambone, a mentally damaged man who haunts the restaurant, obsessively demands a ham he feels he earned for painting a shop owner’s fence, refusing to settle for a chicken. Is Hambone a symbol of Memphis Lee’s future? Meanwhile Sterling Johnson has been released from prison, and is torn between two courses: should he go to the Black Power rally that’s about to begin, or should he seek spiritual peace by visiting Aunt Ester and getting his soul washed? There are two trains running every day, but the question Wilson’s play asks is: which one will get you where you’re going?
Regular cabs won’t travel to the Hill District of the 1970s, and so the residents turn to each other. Jitney (set in 1977; first written in 1979, rewritten and expanded in 2000) dramatizes the lives of men hustling to make a living as jitneys—unofficial, unlicensed taxi cab drivers. When the boss Becker’s son returns from prison, violence threatens to erupt. What makes this play remarkable is not the plot; Jitney is Wilson at his most real—the words these men use and the stories they tell form a true slice of life.
Perhaps the bleakest of all of Wilson’s plays is King Hedley II (set in 1985; completed in 2001). The title character of King—son of Ruby and Hedley from Seven Guitars—has been released from prison, and now struggles to make a new life for himself. With his friend Mister (himself the son of another Seven Guitars character, Red Carter) King is selling stolen refrigerators, but that is no foundation for a life. And when Elmore—the one-time lover of Ruby and perhaps King’s true father—arrives, King begins to learn that success may never have been a possibility for him at all. And when the news hits that Aunt Ester has died, all hope seems lost.
Irony abounds in the final play of the cycle, Radio Golf (set in 1997; completed in 2005). Harmond Wilks seems to have surpassed all of the hurdles that stood in the way of his forbears. A successful businessman and developer, he will soon be a candidate for mayor of Pittsburgh. But even as he tries to turn his back on the past and demolish 1839 Wylie Avenue, the one-time home of Aunt Ester, the past comes walking into his office in the person of Old Joe, who has a mysterious connection both to Aunt Ester and to Harmond. Intricately tied to the characters of Gem of the Ocean, this final play of the cycle, and of August Wilson’s life, once more examines the question of how African-Americans are to regard their past—is it something to be used, something to be cherished, or something best forgotten?
by Faedra Chatard Carpenter
Originally published in Center Stage’s 2007 program for Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.
Known by many as “The Father of the Blues,” W. C. Handy (1873–1958) composed some of the first blues songs ever recorded. Among his most popular and commercially successful was “Joe Turner Blues,” inspired by the inequitable actions of the legendary lawman, Joe Turney, brother of Tennessee governor Pete Turney. Protected by his brother’s position and aided by the institutionalized racism of the South, Joe Turney was among those who participated in the practice of imprisoning Black men in order to profit from their unpaid labor. As W.C. Handy explained, the ominous figure of Joe Turney was woven into the tapestry of Black folklore under the name of “Joe Turner”:
When you speak of the story of the Blues, we can’t tell it without the story of Joe Turner…Joe Turney was the brother of Pete Turney, governor of the state of Tennessee, who pressed Negroes into peonage and took them down the Mississippi River to the farms. To do this, they had decoys that lured Negroes in Memphis to crap games where they were arrested and put into prison. Women looking for their husbands who were late coming home would ask, “I wonder where my husband is?” Then they would be told, “Haven’t you heard about Joe Turner? He’s been here and gone. He had a long chain with 50 links to it where he could press Negroes in handcuffs and take them away.” So the Negroes around Memphis made up a song…
They tell me Joe Turner’s come and gone.
Tell me Joe Turner’s come and gone.
Got my man and gone.
Informed by the words and music of Handy as well as the collage work of Romare Bearden, August Wilson brilliantly brings together pieces of African-American history, folklore, and music to create the story behind Herald Loomis’ long absence. In so doing, Wilson created what he considered to be his best play: the blues-induced, “breathing collage” known as Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.
by Dr. Sandra G. Shannon, a professor at Howard University
The Great Migration refers to a period [beginning in the early 20th Century] when millions of African Americans moved out of the rural South to large industrial cities—such as New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis, and Los Angeles—as well as to many smaller ones. Whether traveling by foot, by wagon, or by rail; whether moving in the safety of small groups or entire families; or whether risking the trip alone, streams of men, women, and children left the South in huge numbers on their way to the supposed “Promised Land” of the North.
August Wilson regarded this mass exodus of African Americans from the cotton and tobacco fields of the South as a huge mistake. In the wake of the South’s failing economy, deceptive advertising campaigns fueled wild rumors about the North having plentiful and better-paying jobs as well as excellent opportunities for an overall improvement in the quality of life. Such lies enticed hordes of skilled and unskilled laborers to join the human highway going North. Unfortunately, many would wind up homeless, poor, hungry, and out of work. Wilson told one journalist:
We came to the North, and we’re still victims of discrimination and oppression in the North. The real reason that the people left was a search for jobs, because the agriculture, cotton agriculture in particular, could no longer support us. But the move to the cities has not been a good move. Today…we still don’t have jobs. The last time blacks in America were working was during the Second World War, when there was a need for labor, and it did not matter what color you were. [i]
To some extent, each installment of Wilson’s ten-play cycle underscores lingering ramifications of this mistake. Many of his transplanted Southern characters are tormented, restless nomads who desperately try to escape their traumatic past, only to make their way North—where they suffer from a host of psychic and physical wounds, even death. Set in either Pittsburgh or Chicago, each play captures the bluesy impulses of the Southern Negro’s initiation into the Northern way of life.
A close examination of these plays reveals that Wilson’s migrants who commit the unforgivable mistake of leaving their Southern homes suffer from an extensive catalogue of physical and psychological maladies: propensities toward self-mutilation and scarring; unexplained convulsions; muted speech; recurring nightmarish visions; kidnapping and prolonged periods of incarceration; insurmountable family strife caused by infidelity, abuse, and abandonment; splintering and dissolution of the nuclear family structure; deferred dreams; and various manifestations of mental trauma, such as schizophrenia, incoherent speech, or dementia. Wilson described the afflicted ones as “foreigners in a strange land,” as “the sons and daughters of newly freed slaves,” and as “marked men and women seeking to scrape from the narrow, crooked cobbles…a way of bludgeoning and shaping the malleable parts of themselves into a new identity as free men of definite and sincere worth.” [ii]
In Joe Turner’s Come and Gone in particular, the impact of the Great Migration is pervasive. The play demonstrates the profound and lasting negative impact that fragmentation has had on both African-American culture in general and on the African-American family in particular. For examples, Seth and Bertha Holly’s 1911 boarding house serves both as a business establishment for laborers who find work at nearby steel mills and as a waystation or halfway house for the seemingly endless flow of tormented, restless, and detached transients just up from the South. The traumas of slavery, dislocation, and migration wreak havoc on this errant population. For them, this welcoming business establishment signals much more than a temporary shelter. The Hollys’ residential business becomes an oasis that allows them to heal while gaining sustenance and directions before resuming their separate journeys.
Joe Turner’s Come and Gone typifies the debt that Wilson’s characters have to pay for their irreverent decisions to abandon the agrarian South in favor of the North’s concrete jungle. Throughout his entire cycle of plays, Wilson is consistent in revealing the apocalyptic and tragic results of what he deems African Americans’ Original Sin. On rare occasions, his “marked” characters are able to avoid the inevitable doom of their mistake. A few are able to regain their footing and find their songs in time to get on with their lives. Unfortunately, such characters seem to be the exception rather than the norm. Southern migrants in August Wilson’s ten plays, as a rule, either perish in the North or become part of its human refuse.
In March of 1988, then-chief new york times theatre critic Frank Rich stated that with Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, August Wilson “continues to rewrite the history of the American theatre by bringing the history of black America—and with it the history of white America—to the stage.” * Written and brought to Broadway after the successes of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (winner of the 1984–85 Drama Critics’ Circle award for best play of the year) and of Fences (winner of the 1987 Tony Award for best play as well as the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for drama), Joe Turner’s Come and Gone solidified Wilson’s spot among the pantheon of great American playwrights and may have been, according to Rich, “Mr. Wilson’s most profound and theatrically adventurous telling of his story to date.” Rich also had high praise for one of the actors in the cast: Delroy Lindo. He wrote of Lindo’s Tony-nominated performance: “[He] gradually metamorphoses from a man whose opaque, defeated blackness signals the extinction of [his] light into a truly luminous “shining man,” bathing the entire theater in the abundant ecstasy of his liberation. The sight is indescribably moving.” Twenty years later, we are honored to have Mr. Lindo on the other side of the proscenium: in the director’s chair. Production dramaturg Douglas A. Jones, Jr. conducted an interview with Mr. Lindo about the play and his relationship to it.
Douglas A. Jones: What are some of the challenges of directing Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, particularly in regards to your intimate relationship with it as an actor?
Delroy Lindo: Including Broadway, I worked on five productions of this play, over a two-and-a-half year period. I know the work well, and understand what it requires and demands. With this production, I must be vigilant with myself and use that knowledge constructively, by allowing the current actors to find their own way into to the play, without unfairly imposing anything on them, based on that knowledge. Some of my current cast are long-time friends of mine, and from the audition experience with the other actors, I do not necessarily feel this will be a ‘problem,’ per se. It is something, though, for me to be constantly sensitive to and aware of.
That reminds me of what August Wilson always said about Joe Turner, that it was the favorite of his plays. Is it your favorite? If so, why? If not, why not?
Joe Turner is absolutely my favorite of August’s works. Of course I’m biased (!), based on my experiences with it, but nevertheless. It was centrally a part of my life, and has remained at my core, on some level, during the subsequent years. I’ve always felt that Joe Turner painted on the broadest and deepest of canvases in August’s canon. He always told me he considered Joe Turner the most ‘African’ of his plays. He and I never discussed that in any great detail; I always felt I knew exactly—instinctively—what he meant by that. The play is about the search for Identity and Self, I believe. Everyone in this play is on a search, or journey. This is most clearly embodied by Herald Loomis; but they’re all searching nevertheless. And I believe that search very fundamentally involves these African people, these people of (relatively recent) African descent, attempting to define and redefine themselves, into whatever beings they’re going to become, on this new, North American continent. As Herald says, “Finding a place in the world.” Arguably one might say all of August’s works deal with this theme, in some sense, Joe Turner explores it perhaps most strongly, most openly. The “bones scene” involving bodies washing up onshore and striding off and away from Herald, into their lives, most clearly embodies this theme.
For me, the “bones scene” has always been one of the most powerful and moving scenes in the American dramatic tradition. At the same time, that scene is quite challenging because structurally it involves elements of realism and non-realism concomitantly. Can you discuss some of the challenges of approaching a play that at first glance seems like realism, and yet is laden with an explicit and very necessary spirituality that must be enacted?
Each scene in the play must be explored and presented in as real and as three-dimensional a way as possible; then it must be allowed to stand on its own terms. We’re helped immensely by the simple fact that August wrote it. The play exists! Now, in order to make these scenes live and breathe fully, my job is to present these scenes/experiences as fully and truthfully as the actors and I know how. It’s as simple and challenging (!) as that.
I think you are really on to what makes Joe Turner such a rich and difficult piece: its challenging simplicity. Like the best of Wilson’s works, history plays an indispensible role in the shaping of the events of Joe Turner and of the lives of its characters. History is almost like another character in and of itself in the play. Can you talk some about the role history plays in Joe Turner? Not only the history in the play (i.e., post-Reconstruction to 1911 America), but also the history that took place after the play is set. That is to say, does what happened between the time Joe Turner takes place and the time when Wilson wrote it matter to the play and to this particular production in Berkeley, California in 2008?
Recalling the first question in this interview, about what’s most challenging for me presenting this play, answering this question is a major challenge! I now have to take what I understand about the play, empirically and emotionally, and formalize/articulate a response. Not unreasonable, but certainly challenging! My knowledge of American history is relatively limited, but here goes!
In 1911, the Emancipation Proclamation is less than fifty years old. Therefore, the people in this play were either born directly into slavery (Bynum, most likely), or have a parent or parents who were. The only exception: Seth Holly. Black people are in the midst of a mass post-Reconstruction migration from the agricultural South to the urban centers of the North. They are searching for better lives and attempting, in the process, to redefine themselves as a people, and also redefine their collective identity in 20th-century American society. The Industrial Revolution has also changed the face of labor in the country. So, in addition to looking for opportunities in decent housing and education, they are also looking for new employment opportunities. After the rise of violent organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan and the laws that legalized oppression and racial discrimination—laws that came to be known as “Jim Crow” laws—they are also looking to escape the violence, persecution and lynching that so characterized this era. Between 1911 and the mid 1940s, black people in this country continued to be confronted with racial and socio-economic persecution, which culminates in the birth of the Civil Rights movement.
2008: We’re only 60 years removed from the Civil Rights movement, and we were only forty years removed, when August wrote the play in the mid 1980s. The Civil Rights Movement brings about a period of profound redefining of political, socio-economic and racial dynamics, particularly for people of African descent.
The post Civil Rights period: America, and African American people specifically, continue to evolve; creating and recreating themselves; and in many instances are de facto defined in the context of those who lived through and were directly affected by the Civil Rights period/movement, and those who weren’t. The debate surrounding the “legitimacy” of various social programs, e.g., affirmative action, and its relevance and “validity” is an outgrowth of this, I believe. The fact that, as I write this, America is embroiled in a presidential campaign in which, despite whatever other highly complex socio-political issues exist, one fundamental question predominates: Is America ready and willing to elect an African American into the White House? The politics of Race and Identity continue to play out in this country, in large ways and small, but in ways fundamental to the culture, nevertheless. People of African descent, African-American people, continue to evolve, seek to redefine themselves, in that culture and context. Certainly then, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone is as topical and relevant now, as ever it was.
One of the most remarkable aspects of this text is the subtle, yet important tension between Seth and some of the other characters—a tension that results from his Northern (i.e. free) heritage and their Southern (i.e. slave) heritage and the ways in which their world-views clash. As a director, do you try to make those differences between the “Northern” characters and the “Southern” very clear to the audience?
I believe August has done that extremely eloquently, just in terms of the way he has written these various characters. Mine and the actors’ jobs are to flesh those characters out, on their own terms, as fully and three-dimensionally as possible.
What role do you think the children play in this story?
The children are the Future. The next generation of the evolution of people of African descent in this culture. The scenes between Zonia and Reuben are on one level simple and sweet, but at the same time quite profound. Very much in keeping with the overall tone of the play.
With that in mind, do you approach this play with an eye towards Wilson’s other works in the ten-play cycle? Or does it stand alone?
It very much stands alone. There’s enough in this one play to occupy one’s time substantially, without having to take on what August’s negotiating in any of the other plays!
All internal show cues are original compositions by Dwight Andrews, except:
Conversations with August Wilson by Jackson R. Bryer (Editor), Mary C. Hartig (Editor)
August Wilson Century Cycle by August Wilson
Bound for the Promised Land: The Great Black Migration by Michael L. Cooper
From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans by John Hope Franklin and Alfred A. Moss Jr.
The Art of Romare Bearden by Ruth E. Fine
Struggles in Steel: The Fight for Equal Opportunity
The Great White Hope
The Piano Lesson
The Color Purple