We’ve learned you actually have quite a history with this play, and with the playwright August Wilson. Tell us about that.
The very first August Wilson play I directed was Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom for another Theatreworks, in Palo Alto, CA, in 1989. This production initiated my long-term association with August Wilson’s works in the profession and in the academy as well.
This THEATREWORKS production of Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (JTCG ) marks the fifth time that I have directed the play. The first production of JTCG I directed was for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 1993, and it was was the first time in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s history that it produced a play by an African American playwright. The play was a critical, popular, and box office success, with many dedicated patrons and subscribers returning on several occasions to see the production again. One of my most poignant memories of that production occurred opening night. I was seated directly behind August Wilson! Definitely an unnerving seat for any director, this “hot seat” was particularly warm in that I had just met Mr. Wilson for the first time in the theater lobby twenty minutes earlier. He was aware of many of the previous productions of plays by other playwrights I had directed for regional theatres and in New York City, but to my knowledge he had never seen my work. Mr. Wilson had a clause in his contract with any theatre seeking the rights to produce his plays that he had final approval on the theatre’s choice of director. The pressure was on. Throughout the performance my focus was split between watching the actors on stage and observing Mr. Wilson’s reactions. Occasionally, he nodded and I saw his shoulders move in ways that I hoped was laughter and appreciation. After a robust curtain call that lasted close to four minutes, one of the longest in the festival’s history, Mr. Wilson turned to me with a tear filled smile, shook my hand and said, “That’s just what I had in mind.”
The artistic director of the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre flew to Oregon to see the production, liked what he saw and hired me to direct JTCG later the same year for his theatre. In 1998, I was fortunate to direct the first Off Broadway production of any Wilson work. This production of JTCG produced by the New Federal Theatre had an extended run and received rave reviews in addition to several commendations, including two AUDELCO awards for Outstanding Direction and Production.
I also directed the Dartmouth College production of JTCG in 1998. This production was the centerpiece of numerous activities scheduled during Mr. Wilson’s tenure as visiting professor and recipient of the prestigious Montgomery Fellowship from Dartmouth, including classes, seminars and lectures, and an exhibition of the collages of Romare Bearden— one of Wilson’s primary influences. During the period between the OSF and the Dartmouth productions, I had grown as an artist and developed a deeper love and understanding of the complexities as well as straightforward simplicities of JTCG. At the reception following the opening night performance at Dartmouth Mr. Wilson said to me, “That’s better than what I had in mind.”
Following the JTCG productions, I directed three additional plays from Wilson’s “Century Cycle”: Fences (four productions—Stagewest (MA) and Delaware Theatre Company 1990, New Repertory Theatre 1991 and Trinity Repertory Theatre 1992); The Piano Lesson (Brandeis University 2001), and Seven Guitars (Penumbra Theatre 2003).
You told me Joe Turner is your very favorite play, period— please tell us why. What’s so great about it?
As the second play in Wilson’s “Century Cycle” opus chronicling the lives of African Americans in the United States JTCG resonates in many significant ways. The characters in JTCG are all beautifully realized. Each one is a generation or less removed from emancipation—one of the most momentous events in American history. However, the conflicts and tensions of racism and discrimination remain prevalent. The Great Migration is gathering momentum as newly freed African Americans leave the agrarian south headed toward the industrialized north with dreams of creating and sustaining better lives for themselves and their families. As critic David Rush succinctly states JTCG is “a serious play in which the universe is reduced in size.” But with this reduction expansive vistas are introduced that encompass a multitude of potential entrees into the amazing and rapidly changing world the characters in the play inhabit and with which they must come to terms in order to survive. JTCG chronicles the lives of my parents, grand-parents and great-great grandparents.
In his plays Wilson employs metaphors that are beautifully realized and pointedly weighted, yet allow the themes he circumscribes to have greater relevance. The search for identity that will contribute to forming one’s essential self is an on-going journey. The hostility of the environments all the characters navigate is transformative and ultimately becomes a contextual equivalent for the Middle Passage, the shipping of slaves from Africa to the New World. Wilson actually resurrects the horrors of the Middle Passage in one of the most compelling and revelatory scenes in American theatre. Language and patterns of speech reflect the broad range of the characters’ immediate pasts which are beautifully grounded in an essential African tonal and rhythmical context. Wilson’s poetic skills bring a heightened excitement and expectation to the text and demand that actors who are cast in his plays are masters in the arts of language and sustained performance. Monologues become arias, which beautifully express the passions and poignant histories of the characters. The emotional landscape is epic and often operatic in scope, while the characters are just ordinary folk experiencing both the extraordinary and the everyday.
By juxtaposing African spirituality and Christian religious beliefs, Wilson engages these significant tropes in a “conversation” that requires drumming, singing, and dancing, as well as call-and-response. Wilson’s idea of “blood memory” is given full voice. It becomes a wail of release, un(Herald)ed in American theatre until JTCG. This wail is also that of the Blues whose development can be traced to and through Negro spirituals, back to the “field holla,” work songs and ring shouts until it is finally grounded in African ritual dances and celebratory chants similar to the Juba, a West African/Yoruba ritual of celebration featured in JTCG. The Blues become an aesthetic of and for survival of the play’s characters— African descendants struggling and enduring in their new American (dis)location.
There are so many additional ways in which JTCG resonates with me and constantly draws me back to it to read and relish—as any great work of art should. Each time I return to JTCG I ask myself, “Is this what August had in mind?” And every time I do, I sense August smiling.
We’ve covered the whole state and both coasts in finding the right cast for this show—what do you think of them?
The cast is very strong and charismatic—beautiful women and handsome men. Each actor is terrifically talented and adept at navigating and revealing the play’s vast and complex emotional terrain. JTCG is a laudable and bold choice for THEATREWORKS. Interviewing, auditioning, and casting actors from the Colorado Springs/Denver area, as well as actors from New York and Los Angeles are a testament to THEATREWORKS’ commitment to making JTCG a powerful and memorable production. The designers, crew, and staff with whom we are collaborating are an inspiring and inspired team of artists and administrators. It is a pleasure and privilege working with them. Several years ago I directed Arabian Nights for THEATREWORKS. I’m humbled to return to direct Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.
Wilson wrote his plays about the black experience, with casts of mostly black actors, preferably working under the guidance of black directors. So is there anything in this play for white, brown, red or yellow people?
August Wilson writes about the African American experience, but his works also reflect and refract the American experience by allowing audiences and readers to better understand who they are individually and collectively as a people, a nation. Wilson is one of the most important playwrights of the twentieth century. His works have resonances that transcend gender, race, religion, and nationalities.
Tell me, Clinton Turner Davis, what does it mean to find your song? And have you found yours?
One of the play’s central characters is Bynum, a “conjure man” who has a song for every occasion: “I got lots of songs. If he don’t like that song, I’ll sing something else. I know lots of songs.” In addition to humming and singing throughout the play, Bynum also facilitates others finding their own song—that “song of self-sufficiency, fully resurrected, cleansed, and given breath, free from any encumbrance other than the workings of [one’s] heart and the bonds of the flesh . . .” Wilson expresses this concept with shimmering beauty and poetically riveting cadences. This same quest was instilled in me by my father and grandfather.
Yes, I have found my song. Its melody is as simple as a heartbeat and full of complexities like the contrapuntal motion and counterpoint found in great musical works, and the polyrhythms pulsating in healing drumming circles. My song grounds me and allows me to take wing and soar.