I first saw a play by August Wilson in 1996 or so, when Rutgers did a presentation of The Piano Lesson. It was the first time I’d seen a play that addressed the African-American experience in America, possibly the first time I’d seen an all-black cast on stage, and I found it very exciting. Sure, the cast was obviously personally very far from the experiences of the characters they were depicting, but I was excited by this show and what it represented: the creation of a truly American theater project.
I have long hated America’s sad hangup on Europe as a source of artistic – well, not inspiration – more like “validation.” America has a long history of looking over its shoulder to the Mother Country/ies for approval and in many ways has sought to imitate rather than innovate. August Wilson’s plays were wholly grown on American soil, of American topics and American people. As time went on from this first outing, I found out about his “Pittsburgh Cycle,” a series of plays documenting the black experience in the 20th century, and I’ve been trying to see all of them. I’ve found them not only an interesting historical experience (insofar as they are capturing different decades), but also a true insight into a culture hugely different from the one I grew up, even though my life was practically side by side with it. (This is not really true as I only have a few decades of my own history and grew up in the white and Hispanic state of Arizona, but still: stories of my countrymen, but stories I don’t know.) My project of seeing all his plays was helped when I moved to Seattle, where Wilson was practically playwright in residence of my neighborhood (frequently spending the day at the now-shut Cafe Septieme on Broadway) and also at the Seattle Repertory Theater, which has produced all of his plays. I, sadly, have only seen about five of them, but had to work on completing my set when I heard the Young Vic was doing Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. The Young Vic juiced it up by offering 15 pound seats the first two weeks of the run. I shifted my tickets for After the Dance and booked in for Monday, June 7th.
The story of Joe Turner runs something like this: Seth Holly (Danny Sapani) and his wife Bertha (Adjoa Andoh) run a boardinghouse in Pittsburgh of 1911. Seth makes a little money as a tinsmith, but dreams of expanding his trade into a craft shop. The boarding house is doing well, though, as African-Americans keep coming up north in floods, looking for work and more freedom than they have in the south. Seth and his tenant Bynum (Adjoa Andoh, the highlight of the play) have some conflict between the old slave/African ways and the new business/Christian ways, as Byrnum practices his “healing” for pocket change while making his way through the local pigeon population. True conflict arrives with drifter Herald Loomis (Kobna Holdbrook-Smith) and his 11-ish daughter, Zonia (not sure which actress played her this night – the program wasn’t clear). Loomis is looking for his wife, whom he lost when “Joe Turner” got him – which, as is clarified later, meant when he was picked up off the street and basically kept as a slave for seven years. (I wasn’t sure if this was perhaps meant to be that he was put in a press gang or just picked up as “vagrant” on a “hanging out while black” kind of charge but it was definitely forced labor of some sort.) Seth is sure he knows where she is, but he won’t let on because something about Loomis just seems wrong to him.
For me, a lot of the pleasure of this show was seeing how the various cultural elements played out. What might life in a boarding house been like, how did newly arrived blacks make a life for themselves when they went up North, how exactly does a hoodoo man do his thing? Their Eyes Were Watching God, which I recently read, certainly gave me an insight into how daily life was lived for poor blacks in Florida in this time period, but it’s almost entirely Christian in its viewpoint and rather more into the gambling/guitar playing good times and less on how a more “normal” group of people might enjoy themselves. I also really enjoyed “meeting” the character of Seth, with his hopes of making a good stable income and being entrepreneurial – Hurston only depicts this kind of character as venal but Seth seems like a guy who really values trying to make a future. In fact, I kind of imagined him as August Wilson’s grandfather, a real pillar of the community and the reason why Wilson wanted to show the whole history of this city and its black population. When he started writing this series, Pittsburgh was already a pretty bad place to live, and I think Wilson remembered it in a much better light: Joe Turner shows Pittsburgh as a real beacon, a destination place where people could make new lives successfully.
However, it was mostly Wilson’s words that made this happen, not the performances by the cast. Just about everyone seemed off to me. Seth sounded far too educated; like nearly the entire cast, he sounded like a Californian, not like an unschooled Northern black man. The dialect speech that Wilson wrote for him (i.e “You be going out tonight?”) came out sounding forced and incomprehensible to the actor. In fact, the accents were a problem for the entire cast, who uniformly sounded like well-educated, modern, West Coast Americans. Mattie Campbell (Demi Oyediran) even goes through the list of places she’s lived – she’s Southern all the way through – yet she sounds like she scrubbed her accent clean away the moment she crossed the Mason-Dixon line. I give Neil Swain, dialect coach, credit for cleaning the English accents out of everyone, but for God’s sake, the man should sit down and listen to how actual Southern blacks speak. No African Americans would perform the roles this way, and as good as English actors are with accents, I expected a lot better than what was delivered.
This was not true for Delroy Lindo (Byrnum): his speech just sounded so natural I wasn’t thinking about the accent at all, and his performance (which had a lot of story telling) really pulled me in beyond the words. I wound up looking up to see where he’s from, and I’m not sure if his citizenship is American or British, but he’s been living in America for forty years, so that’s had to make some difference to his accent. Stil, he’s an actor, not describing his own life or using his own voice, just taking Wilson’s words and making them his own, but in his case speaking the written dialect smoothly and with the accents placed on the words so they all just flowed through him like he’d thought of them on the spot. Lindo sounded right saying them: full credit for an on-the-money performance; he is the star of this show in my eyes and it was a real coup for the Young Vic to get him in this show.
I feel bad about harping on about American accents again, given that I generally dislike the obsession this country has with using accents to figure out everything (and nothing) about people, an obsession I think comes from the UK’s ongoing cultural weirdness about class; but if the dialogue sounded like the actors were having to spit out marbles while they talked, something was wrong.
In fact, I think there may have been a deeper wrong in this production. I’ve previously noted that American actors don’t really seem to “get” Pinter; the reference to a “fried slice” in The Birthday Party has no meaning to an American actor and may, in fact, be mistaken as referring to bacon. I think that, in this case, the “experience” that Wilson is writing about just didn’t gel for these actors. Their own life experiences were so different, their families so different, that the common, everyday occurrences that take place in Joe Turner just don’t resonate. And the actors didn’t feel like they were living their parts. Bertha is too smiley, in a “never had a bad day in her life” kind of way; Mattie was too hang-dog; Loomis didn’t seem to have the air either of a man who had once been a preacher or a man who’d picked cotton. They were all one-note (well to be honest the child actors were both pretty good and as I’ve said before Lindo really made it happen and I’m sure he’s never killed a pigeon for fun); especially in the singing and the dancing – it was like they’d read the stage instructions and did their best to follow them but it was like they were following a recipe for something they’d never had a taste of. I’ve found the difference between the people of African descent I meet in London and the African-Americans I know remarkable; but in this case, the cultural gap was too wide for this mostly British cast to cross convincingly. Frankly, I’m glad for them that the world Wilson wrote of was not the one they grew up with or heard of from their folks; too much hate, too much bullying, too much prejudice. Who would want to be a child of Jim Crow? But in this case, the ease with which an African-American actor might have handled these roles was missing. For that reason, even though I’m glad I was able to see this play performed, I’m afraid I can’t recommend this production; it doesn’t hit the base level of competence the script demands. See it to see Wilson performed; see it to learn about a world far different from what I see performed on the English stage; but don’t go to it expecting to see excellence. And leave your nice handbags and clothing at home; the red dirt that covers the stage and is under all the seats and walkways is remarkably hard to get out of your clothes.