'August Wilson's 20th Century' Is Teeming With Rich Portrayals

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 8, 2008

Even when a performance of "Joe Turner's Come and Gone" unfolds like a dress rehearsal, pain manages to envelop the stage as if the actors were summoning the play's heartache for the thousandth time.

Such is the effect of this work, both delicate and ferocious. It's certainly one of August Wilson's most brutally luminous plays, a piece anchored in a specific year and place that nevertheless explores a timeless, anguishing void in the consciousness of a drifting people.

Set in 1911, the drama comes second in the Wilson timeline, and thus arrives second in the order of works in "August Wilson's 20th Century," the 10-play Kennedy Center anthology that commenced this week. Over the next month, each of the offerings will be rolled out, and then in a final spurt, all 10 will be performed in an eight-day marathon.

Sitting in the Terrace Theater this week through "Joe Turner" and the work that launches the cycle, "Gem of the Ocean," one got an immediate sense of the project's scale -- and its limitations. David Gallo's set, dominated by a black-and-white collage of gritty images of urban life, seems intended to represent a century of experience in the black Pittsburgh enclave where nine of the 10 plays take place. ("Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" is set in 1927 in a Chicago recording studio.)

Reggie Ray's splendid period costumes exist in evocative counterpoint to the abstracted setting. A long, slightly unwieldy staircase, a door frame and a few tables and chairs suggest the interiors of homes. And true to the billing of the productions as staged readings, the actors carry their scripts at all times.

Some in the casts of "Gem" and "Joe Turner" are more reliant on what's on the page than others; the most frustrating aspect of the format is the constraint it imposes on physicality. There is no consistency in when actors gaze down to refresh their memories and when they find moments to look directly at each other. With scripts in hand, too, actors cannot be as tactile as they might desire, and you do at times feel the absence of human contact, of impulsive touches and embraces.

Fortunately, though, the actors are so uniformly up to the rigors of Wilson's dense, funny, rich language that the deficits of a staged reading ultimately seem minor. You do get caught up in the dramatist's character-driven tales, and especially in the urgent lives of "Joe Turner's Come and Gone."

The play, which occurs as the Great Migration by African Americans to the cities of the industrial North is taking shape, is a vibrant portrait of displacement. The location is a boardinghouse in that Wilson landmark, the Hill District, and it's filled with people on the way from one place to another, or looking for a person they've lost, or even searching for something more self-defining and ephemeral -- what one of the characters calls the seeking of their "songs."

Among them is the solemn, brooding Herald Loomis, who arrives at the boardinghouse trailed by his young daughter, Zonia (Dominique Ross), and a festering sense of grievance. From Russell Hornsby -- who portrays the mysterious Herald with the brim of his hat pulled menacingly over piercing eyes -- director Todd Kreidler elicits a sensational performance.

Herald is scouring the earth for the wife who disappeared years earlier, but Wilson paints him as a man with a much more cosmic quest: He's looking for some confirmation that the world might offer a man like him solace and justice. The role calls for mournful indignation, and the actor delivers in the unsettling final scene in which the fate of his family is shatteringly resolved.

The rest of the cast contributes memorably, from John Beasley's homespun philosopher Bynum, to Michole Briana White's predatory Molly, to Rosalyn Coleman's movingly dignified Martha. Even the scenes between Dominique and another child actor, Terrance Thomas, are staged with a sweet authenticity.

The actors in "Gem of the Ocean" are impeccably chosen, too -- especially the gifted Ruben Santiago-Hudson, reprising his Broadway turn as the play's hilarious and aptly named bully, Caesar. Four of the seven actors, in fact, are reunited here from the 2004 Broadway production, along with the original version's director, Kenny Leon, who is also artistic director of the Wilson celebration.

In the shadow of "Joe Turner," "Gem of the Ocean" inevitably seems a lesser achievement. One allows us to absorb a history of suffering; the other merely tells us about it. "Gem," set in 1904, revolves around the ritual handing off of knowledge of a painful past to a young man called, of all things, Citizen Barlow, played here as on Broadway by John Earl Jelks.

The play's most theatrical interlude propels Citizen on a hallucinatory journey to the slave ships and a kind of memorial service for those who died in the hideous flotilla to bondage. His guide is the most fanciful character in the cycle, the pragmatic mystic, Aunt Ester -- portrayed by the estimable Michele Shay -- a Hill District legend whose presence will be felt in installments to come.

Characters such as Anthony Chisholm's warm and grizzled Solly Two Kings are eccentric relics from the days of slavery, links made of flesh to events one only reads about in books. The play might insist too heavily on turning us all into Citizens, but the vital information is still useful to impart.

August Wilson's 20th Century: Gem of the Ocean. Directed by Kenny Leon. Today at 2 p.m. and March 30 at 2 p.m. Joe Turner's Come and Gone. Directed by Todd Kreidler. Tonight at 7:30 and March 30 at 7:30 p.m. Call 202-467-4600 or visit http://www.kennedy-center.org.

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