August Wilson's "Joe Turner's Come and Gone" has the haunting power of a ghost story.
That may seem a curious observation to make of a play that is set in a black boardinghouse in Pittsburgh, circa 1911, and concerns the efforts of its inhabitants, only a few generations out of slavery, to gain a foothold in the industrialized North.
And yet, as Wilson's drama progresses, you will feel the ground slipping out from underneath you. What appears to be a naturalistic chronicle soon starts bulging in odd places and emitting unsettling vibrations, as if it were surrendering to mystical forces beyond its control.
"Joe Turner," which opened last night at Arena's Kreeger Theater, is part of an ambitious cycle of plays in which Wilson intends to examine black life in America, decade by decade. "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" viewed the racial turbulence of the 1920s through the microcosm of a Chicago recording studio. In Wilson's current Broadway hit, "Fences," the frustrating ambivalence of the 1950s surfaces in the sooty back yard of a Pittsburgh garbage collector.
"Joe Turner" paints the spiritual dislocation of blacks pouring north after the turn of the century in the hope of putting the past behind them and claiming the just fruits of their labor. Like the corner bar or the all-night cafe', the boardinghouse is the perfect locale to presenta cross-section of characters and attitudes, not to mention the sociology of a distant age when a room and two daily meals ran you $2 a week.
Wilson introduces us first to Seth Holly (Mel Winkler), the proprietor who makes pots and pans in his back yard; his commonsensical wife Bertha (L. Scott Caldwell); and a couple of their boarders. Chief among them is Bynum Walker (Ed Hall), a garrulous conjurer with revelations in his head and magic herbs in his pockets. Still, we're on recognizable turf, even if Bynum persists in talking about "the shiny man" -- a prophet whom he claims to have met on the road long ago and whose destiny it is to help lost souls discover their "song."
Then, Herald Loomis shows up in the doorway -- a lanky figure out of the night, his eyes haggard, his face set in anguish, his long black overcoat swirling about his legs like a tornado. As Delroy Lindo plays him, which is with commandingly angular intensity, Loomis instantly infuses the play with a sense of mystery, both tantalizing and vaguely frightening. He was, we learn, pressed into illegal bondage for seven years. (Wilson takes his title from the 19th-century folk song about the white bounty hunter, Joe Turner, who plucked blacks from the fields and off the highways to sell them back into slavery.)
A free man once again, Loomis has roamed north, his daughter in hand, to find his wife and "a starting point" for the ruptured family. Above all, he wants to find himself, become whole again. Imbedded in this realistic drama of blacks coping with the truncated promises of emancipation is the larger spiritual drama of the soul's quest for identity.
Wilson came to the theater from poetry and there's no denying his incantatory power with words. The table talk is lusty and humble, homely even. But it is a cover for the real issue at hand, which is redemption. The forces of fundamentalist Christianity, voodoo "heebie-jeebie" and animal fury are slowly building up, as if in a pressure cooker.
In the end, "Joe Turner" plunges headlong into religious ritual. For all its bold theatricality, however, I'm not sure Loomis' violent rebirth makes dramatic sense. We're left grappling for symbolic explanations and metaphysical justifications for his behavior, the knife he wields and the blood he sheds. The psychological underpinnings are thoroughly muddled. It's as if the playwright -- or Jesus -- had struck him with a bolt of lightning. The scene is bewildering in its suddenness.
It is not just the play's final eerie moments that prompt me to look upon "Joe Turner" as a ghost story, though. Most of Wilson's boarders feel uprooted, at odds with history. Mattie Campbell (Kimberleigh Aarn), the shy young housemaid, waits helplessly for the return of the man who sired her two children, then abandoned her after they died. Molly Cunningham (Kimberly Scott) may be too strong-minded to wait, preferring the temporary male alliances that keep her in pretty clothes, but she's no less a drifter.
All of them are looking for something -- a direction, a refuge or a mate in a society that has cast them to the wind. They're partial people, walking ghosts who resort to Bynum's necromancy and potions to assuage their hurt. Bizarre visions haunt this boardinghouse and seizures hurl Loomis to the floor.
None of this is tidy. Wilson's elemental power continues to overwhelm the basic structure of his dramas. His efforts remind you of a large man trying to squeeze into a suit two sizes too small. Every now and then, you hear the fabric ripping. Still, the individual scenes are potent with acting possibilities.
As guided by Lloyd Richards, who first staged the work for the Yale Repertory Theatre, a gifted cast takes Wilson head on. Lindo sweeps through the play like a raven possessed. But Hall's depiction of Bynum, the conjurer, is equally vivid -- an artful blend of folksiness and prophecy. Bynum sees it as his mission "to bind people together ... help them find each other," and Hall's warmth has a similarly cohesive effect on the production.
Winkler and Caldwell -- the one as crusty as the other is quietly tolerant -- are solid counterpoints to the passions heating up under their roof. Scott has the wry superiority of the woman of easy virtue, and Raynor Scheine, looking as if he had stepped from the pages of a Mark Twain yarn, scores as a white peddler who picks up a little extra cash on the side as a one-man missing persons bureau.
Scott Bradley's set -- kitchen, drawing room and the outside bulkhead to the basement -- is a handsome period evocation, and Michael Giannitti's lighting alternately bathes it in sunlight and dark shadows. There's a kind of picture-book prettiness to things, before they turn gothic.
Turn they do, sometimes with a jolt and a lurch. The play's climax, in fact, depends upon the introduction of a new character -- not quite a deus ex machina, but almost -- operating at fever pitch. Electrifying as matters have been up to that point, "Joe Turner's Come and Gone" abruptly suffers from overload.
Finding your way into Wilson's world is easy. Making your way back out is a decidedly more challenging proposition.
Joe Turner's Come and Gone, by August Wilson. Directed by Lloyd Richards; set, Scott Bradley; costumes, Pamela Peterson; lighting, Michael Giannitti. With Mel Winkler, L. Scott Caldwell, Ed Hall, Raynor Scheine, Delroy Lindo, Bo Rucker, Kimberleigh Aarn, Kimberly Scott, Angela Bassett. At Arena's Kreeger Theater through Nov. 22.