The M Ensemble's Joe Turner Lacks Dynamic Range
The plays of August Wilson have been so celebrated in print that it is probably pointless to begin the discussion anew. If he wasn't the most poetic, the most novel, the most fun, or the most profound of recent American playwrights, he certainly combined all of those elements to a degree unequalled by any other. His plays explored the "black experience" before they explored anything else, and Wilson's take on that experience is considered among the wisest ever committed to the page or stage.
So the temptation is to give you the score and nothing else: How does the new take of Joe Turner's Dead and Gone measure up to other productions; which actors do their jobs; which ones don't; and is the set pretty? Sure enough, we can do that. The set is indeed pretty; Douglas Grinn's reconstruction of the play's single locale — the boarding house owned by Seth and Bertha Holly — places us believably in the early 1900s and is admirably economical. This is a good thing, because the cast of 11 is about the biggest bunch of people you can stick on The M Ensemble's stage before it begins to look and feel like a clown car.
And the actors are serviceable. For your money, you get three standout performances (from Carolyn Johnson, Curtis Allen, and Lela Elam), three near-disasters (from Chat Atkins, Edward Kassar, and Herman Carabali II), and five other perfectly acceptable attempts to pin down what is probably some of the hardest straight drama in modern American theater.
The story is straightforward enough, at least on the surface: Herald Lumis (Carabali) and his 11-year-old daughter Zonia (the preternaturally gorgeous 16-year-old Alexandra Nimmons) stop at the Hollys' boardinghouse while on a journey to find Martha Lumis, Herald's long-lost wife (played by Christine Alexander). She has been separated from her family by Joe Turner, a white man who ran chain gangs of uncertain legality. Little is said of Turner, who in the ruminations of The M Ensemble's actors remains a shadowy figure of immense power and malice. We know only that he took black folks from their families and put them to work for as long as he pleased.
There is considerably more at stake here than merely a wife, or even a mother. Wilson has always blended the quotidian with the metaphysical, and in this play it quickly becomes clear that Herald Lumis's very soul has somehow been taken from him and can't be returned through any normal means. This is tricky territory: In Wilson plays, the balancing of the quotidian and the metaphysical is always the most difficult thing to nail, and the folks at The M Ensemble do it well. After a half-hour in the boarding house, audiences might have a hard time telling the two apart. When a boarder named Bynum Walker tells spooky stories about a "shiny man" (sort of a cross between John the Baptist and a spirit guide) and later performs a strange shamanic dance in the front yard, it seems no weirder than Seth Holly's day job of turning sheet metal into pots and pans.
But something in this equation fails to work properly. In a perfect Joe Turner, the boarding house and its inhabitants would be full of mounting dread; the terrible black magic wrought by Turner would stink up the air and raise goose bumps on the arms of observers. It doesn't, and the pacing is to blame. Here Wilson's thoughtful, contemplative language is too often rushed in the tempo of ordinary speech, which doesn't allow the production sufficient time to ramp up for the devastating, surrealistic monologues Wilson buried like landmines. The day-to-day events of the play should run slower, and the surreal elements, such as Herald Lumis's deranged jabbering about skeletons rising up out of the sea, should hit with a kind of violence — some punctuation to let you know you've fallen through the looking glass.
Unfortunately these actors might be incapable of such things. When he first appears onstage, Carabali looks like a man of molten intensity, but he is so one-note that it ceases to matter — his smoldering look is all he has. When he tries to appear vulnerable or has a meltdown, his emoting is stilted and hammy. Atkins, who plays Bynum Walker, is a little better, but in his attempt to portray a character so much older than himself (Atkins looks thirtyish; Walker is supposed to be in his late sixties at the least), he has pitched his voice far too high in his throat, effectively eliminating any dramatic or dynamic range.
Actually, a lack of dynamic range is a very handy description of the production's whole set of problems, and it would sink the thing if it weren't for Johnson, Allen, and especially Elam. Playing an independent black woman with a high-powered libido and a craving for the finer things in life, Elam executes a raucous arrival onstage that has roughly the same effect as the sudden appearance of Technicolor in The Wizard of Oz. She chews the scenery with all the subtlety of a chain saw in a corset, and though her character is almost incidental to the plot, she is entertaining enough to keep audiences curious as to the play's meaning.
In the end, the meaning has something to do with souls, memories, histories, and a great host of other unquantifiables — which were explored in Wilson's work with such clarity and humanity that you can leave the theater feeling on the verge of some miraculous revelation, even after a flawed performance. Under ordinary circumstances, thinking about a man like Joe Turner is difficult, and the kinds of men who labored under a Joe Turner — what was done to them, how and what they must have thought of themselves and their world — is a great and terrible mystery. Wilson's writing strides right up to the edge of that mystery and knocks at it, hammers it, pummels it. There is never a breakthrough (at the crucial moments, Wilson always dips away from explanation and resorts to poetry), but at least Joe Turner lets us wonder what might be back there.
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