Boarding-house rules

Joe Turner’s Come and Gone

Rated 4.0

A busy boarding house run by a black family in Pittsburgh circa 1911—“two dollars a week, includes two meals a day”—is the setting of the late August Wilson’s expansive African-American play Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. It’s a world that’s at once nearer and more distant than it appears.

Nearer because the people, and the language they speak, feel familiar and very much American. Distant because in 1911 many black Americans had parents (and certainly grandparents) who’d lived through slavery. Women couldn’t vote, and nobody was talking about a guy like Barack Obama as a future president. Radio hadn’t moved into people’s living rooms, much less television.

Indeed, one of the subtle insights you carry away from this show is that there’s no background buzz from broadcast or recorded media in gentle, wise proprietress Bertha Holly’s wonderful kitchen, which produces biscuits, gravy, grits and fried chicken throughout the play.

In the foreground, 11 characters constantly are coming and going. There’s Herald Loomis (André Ramey), an angry soul searching grimly for his wife. Young stud Jeremy Furlow (Jawara Duncan), fresh from the South, hits on fellow boarders Mattie Campbell (Brooklynn Solomon) and Martha Pentecost (Tygar Hicks), not without success. There’s Bynum Walker (Tyehimba Kokayi), a middle-aged spiritualist who talks of meeting a “shining man”; Seth Holly (Eddie Jackson), an entrepreneurial metal-worker who makes pots and pans; and his even-tempered wife, Bertha (Stephanie Cochrane).

Director Melinda Wilson is relatively new to the CSUS theater department, with a doctorate from Northwestern University. For this production, she’s working with a student cast, most of whom look to have been born in the 1980s. Together, they put on a surprisingly consistent and convincing show. It isn’t perfect; there are scenes where the show momentarily loses its luster, but that’s not unusual in a 150-minute production.

Overall, the show comes together rather nicely. The big scenes just before intermission and concluding the play are strikingly rendered, with an immediacy that grips your imagination with the kind of impact you expect in a professional effort. The production got an assist from California Musical Theatre, with the goal of building up ethnic-theater offerings at CSUS. We’ll watch for Wilson’s work in the future; she’s clearly a director to keep an eye on.