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Here’s a thing: In one week, two local companies open productions of landmark plays by August Wilson and Arthur Miller, two of American drama’s living titans, men who earned their places in the theatrical pantheon before the companies producing them were founded. (Long before, in Miller’s case; Death of a Salesman dates to 1949, for heaven’s sake, and The Crucible, that fierce examination of our national propensity for hysteria, is a bare four years younger.) It seems fitting that we should hear from Wilson and Miller now: Both men are poets of outrage, chroniclers of the vast indignities our society inflicts on its least, heartbroken documentarians of the mad things we do to ourselves over and over and over again. (Did anyone else cheer when Miller, who targeted and was targeted by the governmental excesses of the McCarthy era, stepped up again last year to denounce the “alchemy of far-right arrogance” by which our leaders were busily transmuting the world’s post–Sept. 11 good will into an abiding international resentment?)
But both men are grand storytellers, too, deeply caught up in the humanity of the characters whose hard lives they celebrate and mourn. And the more of his work we see, the more we realize that Wilson, especially, with his developing decalog of plays about the African-American experience in the 20th century, has established himself as a kind of Boccaccio of the black diaspora, a hugely talented spinner of tales peopled by richly drawn characters with terrific stories of their own to tell.
The African Continuum Theatre Company’s solid mounting of Joe Turner’s Come and Gone—Wilson’s third effort, set in 1911 in a Pittsburgh boardinghouse peopled by assorted lovers, strivers, and eccentrics—showcases the playwright’s gift for story and for language as surely as it does the quartet of fine performances at its core. What director Jennifer Nelson doesn’t quite do is bring clarity to the play’s many-layered polemics; subtler threads of argument pass unremarked, while the boldest ones go underemphasized. Still, it’s a pretty rich evening: As in any Wilson play, the action all but stops from time to time while characters weave yarns, colorful and full of vernacular truth, that eventually form a tapestry of meaning. Magic gets made here; relationships bloom and die; histories get explored and explained; migrations are charted; traditions collide; terms are come to; and people live and breathe, vivid and colorful and full to bursting with joy and pain and hope and rage.
Chief and most endearingly comical among them is Frederick Strother’s Bynum Walker, the pigeon-slaughtering, salt-sprinkling, world-wandering “conjure man” whose folk magic works more than one small miracle as the evening goes on; Strother has come up with a whole vocabulary of verbal and visual tics that make a character of what could easily become a caricature in less sure hands, and he makes the wild-haired, rheumy-eyed old man funny but never a figure of fun. And rightly so: Bynum Walker represents traditions that, Wilson argues, African-Americans must remember and honor and draw strength from if they’re to have their own identities in this white man’s world, and for all his oddity, he’s a person of considerable dignity. The part’s a great showcase for an actor of considerable craft.
Kevin Jiggetts easily equals Strother, giving a performance of such tormented physicality that you understand what a world of hurt his mysterious Herald Loomis has endured long before he runs down the particulars. (They involve the blues song that gives the play its title, the corrupt Tennessee lawman it immortalized, and the price a good man’s family pays when his skin lands him in a bad situation.) Jumpy, intense, on the edge of breaking and yet somehow possessed of a deeply centered nobility, Jiggetts’ Herald embodies the pain, the anger, and—most movingly—the bewilderment of an honest man who’s recovered part of his stolen life and doesn’t quite know what to do with it.
As Bynum and Herald’s hosts, Randall Shepperd and Lynn Chavis make a warmly human pair: Shepperd’s Seth Holly, prickly about his reputation and suspicious of just about everyone who walks through the door, is a no-nonsense paterfamilias whose gruff exterior can’t quite conceal his essential charity. (Never mind the delicious misanthropy of his best lines: “This fella look like he owe the devil a day’s work and he tryin’ to figure out how to pay,” he growls when Herald turns up at the house.) Chavis’ Bertha Holly shushes him affectionately, smiles indulgently at Bynum’s antics, waits expectantly for Herald to show his hand, watches knowingly as young lovers circle, and feeds everybody handsomely; she’s as relaxed and maternal as a house cat, and every bit as wise.
Weakish turns from the young actors playing Herald’s daughter and the neighbor boy she befriends make a second-act scene of promise and parting seem flat—even a trifle sentimental—when it could and should be heartbreaking. But KenYatta Rogers, MaConnia Chesser, and Melissa Princess Best mine a love-triangle subplot for all it’s worth, having great fun with a trio of characters whose strut and sweetness and sass make them a writer’s gift to actors.
The gift Joe Turner holds out to audiences is a set of propositions as uncompromising as any Arthur Miller ever launched. Wilson tells specifically African-American stories, yes, and he may not expect other populations to swallow either his diagnoses or his prescriptions, but in a final sequence as bracing for the positions it takes as for the violence and emotional fervor it frames, this modern-day bard finds more than one larger truth. He insists that facing the past, facing it down, and folding it into ourselves is the only way to build a workable future. He suggests that the faiths and truths we whisper and chant and sing to ourselves may very well be no more than lies we repeat to palliate the wrongs we’ve suffered and justify the wrongs we’ve done. Identity, the passion of Herald Loomis tells us, is a thing we seize, not a thing we’re handed—and until we stop allowing others to define us, we can’t ever know what we might make of ourselves. ACTCo’s production may be muddy on one or two things, but it’s triumphantly clear about that.
Like Herald Loomis, Miller’s John Proctor is a decent man who’s lost sight of his better nature, and the events of The Crucible find him walking through fire to find it again. Based on the events of the 17th-century Salem witch trials and written in response to the rising anti-Communist hysteria of the ’50s, the play seems startlingly relevant again in the wake of three years’ irrational politics. Not for nothing has Miller observed that “the job of the artist…is to remind people of what they have chosen to forget”; it must get exhausting to have to keep doing it over and over again.
The Keegan Theatre, like other smallish Washington companies, often brings more ambition than accomplishment to the major plays it tackles, but its Crucible seems substantial enough at its core. Mark Rhea and Lee Mikeska Gardner anchor the production with fine, well-drawn portraits of John and Elizabeth Proctor, the flawed but honorable pair caught up in the spiritual and political hysteria that spirals uncontrollably from the distinctly temporal indiscretions of a group of girls.
Alia Faith Williams vacillates convincingly between burgeoning arrogance and trembling remorse as Mary Warren, the adolescent who damns the Proctors when she might have saved them. And Eric Lucas brings a tortured dignity to the part of the Rev. John Hale, who discovers at length the truths of a situation—and of a singular set of personalities—that he initially misunderstands.
If the rest of the cast is sometimes uneven, that’s perhaps to be expected in a small-house production of a play that calls for 20 players. Susan Marie Rhea steers them all ably enough, making up for a few static moments with a courtroom climax that escalates convincingly from mere mad politics into utter madness.
And the play itself is a corker, a canonical standby that hasn’t lost a bit of its edge. The Crucible, no less than Joe Turner, insists that individual integrity represents hope in a world whose institutions too often breed chaos and darkness—and God help us, we need reminding of that truth now as much as we did when last we forgot it. CP