Joe Turner’s Come and Gone

Rated 3.0 In a departure from its recent programming, City Theatre takes on a big African-American play in August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. Set in 1911—two years shy of the 50th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation—with the events taking place in a boarding house in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the ambitious script takes on the northward migration from rural Southern states, in addition to contrasting several different kinds of romance (a steady marriage, matrimony broken off by bad circumstances, opportunistic affairs and a little bit of puppy love), in addition to comparing devout Christian faith with more shamanistic spiritualism involving herbs and pigeon blood.

That’s quite a lot to take on, and director Lisa Tarrar Lacy does it with a cast of 11 that ranges from community-theater veterans to novice actors appearing in a play for the first time. And as you might expect, the results are uneven—some scenes shine, while others come up short of the mark.

Strong points include big, burly J.D. Diefenbacher as boarding-house owner Seth Holly, who also makes cooking pots and dustpans and longs to become a small entrepreneur in what we recognize, in retrospect, as the emerging industrial economy. Also good is Holly’s wife, played by Etta Martin-Lee as a level-headed, good-hearted matron. J.G. Gonsalves is also strong as a man who deals in herbs, charms and advice. Michael Turner puts in some good work as a young man just up from the South. And Lorne A. White, as a bitter husband looking for his wife, has a memorable scene with Gonsalves just before intermission.Even though the production doesn’t sustain the energy of its better scenes throughout, it’s still an interesting show, and a thoughtful visit to a group of people living in a place and time that seldom crosses our radar in 2002—even though characters like these are important in terms of who we became as a nation. And it’s a pleasure to see a “non-ethnic” theater company put an August Wilson script through its paces—one hopes that City Theatre will try this sort of show again.