ST. PETERSBURG –American Stage comes full circle with its production of “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” now running through Feb. 19. With this presentation of the August Wilson play, the St. Pete theater becomes only one of a handful of companies in the world to stage every installments of the playwright’s famed “Century Cycle.”
Set in a Pittsburgh boarding house in 1911, “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” was first staged in 1984 and is chronologically the second of 10 installments in the epic series, which sketches the African-American experience throughout the century.
The drama explores themes of identity, migration and racial exploitation as Seth and Bertha Holly run the boarding house, which serves as a temporary home to characters with various backgrounds, including an eccentric conjurer, a guitar-playing youth and a mysterious man searching for his wife.
The characters represent a sort of cross-section of African Americans in the early part of the last century, as Seth Holly was born a free man in the North while Bynum represents those clinging tightly to their African heritage. In between are those such as Bertha Holly, a Christian woman who will also indulge in traditional African rituals.
USF professor and veteran writer, director and actor Fanni Green, who plays the role of Bertha, believes this work has a touch of “spirituality.”
“What we might call the ‘magicalness’ [sic] about it is that it speaks to the time that we’re in, that we encounter maybe 30 or so years after slavery had been abolished,” she said. “They are traveling from the south to the north and they were given freedom but not given a plan for how they could live free. So some of them are seeking new lives for themselves, seeking how to support their families, trying to reconnect with families, and we come to this one boarding house that’s also a stopping place where people are trying to put their lives together in a new place.”
The characters in the play are clear about how they’re abused by the white majority. The Harold Loomis character was snatched up by plantation owner Joe Turner’s men and enslaved for seven years, separated from his family.
“So he too carries the scar of that, carries the anger of that. Seven years for no reason other than just being out on the road. He’s a respectable man, a deacon in his church. He was a family man,” said Green.
The characters are clear about how they are being viewed, Green said, but they also grapple with how they view one another. She also remarked that she shares some similarities with her character Bertha, the matriarchal figure of the boardinghouse.
“I think that Bertha is a realist and she’s an optimist and I think that she is quite observant. And I think that she is loving, so I would say that Fanni is all of those things as well.”
Bertha is very good at managing her house and making things work. She knows and completely understands the yearnings of her husband, and Green expressed that she’s lived long enough to have that kind of understanding as well.
Green praised the director L. Peter Callender and the entire cast for “gelling” to tell the story of “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.” Veteran Kim Sullivan returns to American Stage in his role as Seth Holly, making him the only actor to perform in all 10 of the theater’s productions of the Century Cycle.
Rounding out the cast are Alexandria Crawford (Martha Loomis Pentecost), Bianca Rievera-Irons (Zonia Loomis), Calvin M. Thompson (Herald Loomis), Cindy de la Cruz (Mattie Campbell), Elijah Dixon (Reuben Mercer), Jemier Jenkins (Molly Cunningham), Mujahid Abdul-Rashid (Bynum), Richard B. Watson (Rutherford Selig), Satchel Andre (Jeremy Furlow), Shelby Ronea (Zonia Loomis) and Tyrese Pope (Reuben Mercer).
As for those who come to see this last play in the Century Cycle, Green said: “They’re going to be met with laughter, with a slice of our history, with language that is absolutely beautiful, with spirituality, with community. And they’re going to be met with the expertise and the sensitivity and craftsmanship of Peter Callender and all of our cast.”
Though “Joe Turner” takes place over a century ago, Green said it is wonderful for the American Stage to end the Cycle with this story during our current time. Pointing out that the country is adjusting to a new administration, she said it is a “time of new beginnings” and a time of people rethinking, “What is America and what should America be?”
“This play allows for us to embrace a part of our history that we sometimes relegate only to the month of February,” she said. “It says to us that the fabric of American history is interwoven and this is a piece of that fabric. Let’s take a look at it.”
For information and show times for “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” call (727) 823-PLAY or visit americanstage.org.