August Wilson, who died in 2005, was not only African-American, but a Pittsburgh native, and his work combined the two themes spectacularly. The Pittsburgh of JOE TURNER'S COME AND GONE, the second of his plays in the Pittsburgh Cycle, is the Pittsburgh of 1911, specifically that of the Hill District, an area where streets seem nearly vertical, and where houses are large - and were frequently used as boarding houses. In the 1960s, when Wilson was writing and working there, he co-founded Black Horizon Theater in that same district that is now becoming increasingly re-gentrified and white. JOE TURNER is a massive play in and of itself, clocking in at nearly three hours - but at Open Stage of Harrisburg, as directed by Don Alsedek in its fourth year of August Wilson plays, there's proof that time is relative, as no one cares about the show's length; the performances are simply that riveting.
Open Stage has, intentionally or not, created an ensemble that performs August Wilson all but in repertory, and the results are well worth it. Seth and Bertha Holly, the boarding house owners, are played by Open Stage Wilson production veterans Daniel Fordham and Broadway World award nominee Sharia Benn. Their long-suffering tolerance of their tenants' foibles is admirable - although Bertha specializes in silencing problems with a cup of coffee and a biscuit (which isn't a bad way to handle things even now). The tenant with the most foibles is undoubtedly Bynum Walker, a root doctor who arrived in Pittsburgh some time back with his skills, his beads, and his bags of herbs, and who now performs strange rituals in the back yard with the pigeons in the mornings. As played by Open Stage and Gamut Theatre Group veteran Aaron Bomar, Bynum is the sympathetic listener and confidant, the provider of advice both within and without the hoodoo spectrum, to other tenants and to clients who come to see him from off the street. Although spirituality and religion are discussed freely throughout the play, it is Bynum who is the spiritual center of the circle surrounding the Holly residence.
White peddler Rutherford Selig, played more than ably by Open Stage and Allenberry veteran Richard Johnson, is an interesting character - more so because in Wilson's work Selig is quite clearly Christian, although peddlers such as Selig were historically Jewish, as is Selig's last name. However, he's very clear on his family's history - and family and history are two deep-seated themes in this play. Selig comes to Holly's house because Seth is a fine metalsmith, making pots, pans, dustpans and other useful things that Selig sells on his route; but Selig has a second job, as he is able to find people. Bynum wants Selig to find the "shiny man" who helped him discover his "song," his ability to bind people together, or to causes or events. According to Bynum, everyone has a song; some people have just lost theirs.
Bynum is the friend of younger tenant Jeremy Furlow, portrayed by Jeremy Patterson, a road construction worker (for Pennsylvanians, a pre-PennDOT worker), and the root worker for the lonely Mattie Campbell (Tanisha Hollis), which brings Patterson and Campbell together but, as we discover, clearly fails to bind them. Seth Holly is worried that his house remain respectable, and he clearly fears and suspects Southern African-Americans, even Bynum, but he seems to have little concern other than that the money for Mattie's meals is paid when Jeremy asks if she can move in with him. In Fordham's hands, the apparent contradiction seems less contradictory than it might be; he is concerned with violence and drunkenness, but he is not as religious as Benn's Bertha, and has no intention of preaching on private morality - only when the extremely attractive, underemployed, and able-to-pay Molly Cunningham (Aneesa Neibauer) arrives and mentions her enjoyment of male company do we hear moralizing, and that on the illegality of prostitution.
The Hollys' boarding house is stirred up by the arrival of Herald Loomis (Leonard Dozier), a former church deacon with strange habits who professes to be looking for his wife, and his young daughter Zonia (Tierra Fuller), who accompanies him. Zonia wants to play - especially with the neighbor boy, Reuben Mercer (Madison Bond, II), and the two are really charming, neither overly cute nor scene stealers, but both with some serious talent. Fuller, as Zonia, in her first stage role, is capable of displaying a young girl's emotions turning on a dime. It is to be hoped that both of these young people will continue to try their hands at stage work. Dozier, meanwhile, is everything that Loomis needs to be - dark, intense, promising danger, a man with a barely contained rage inside. Loomis' fit at the end of Act One, with the interplay with Bynum, who is all but prophesying from Ezekiel as Loomis describes his hallucinations, is possibly the most masterful performance of the season. Dozier and Bomar must be singled out for this incredible moment of stage work.