August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone

Last night Dave and I went to see Joe Turner’s Come and Gone at the Lorraine Hansberry Theater. Somehow I have never seen or read it before. I liked the acting, I liked the production, I was interested all the way through, and yet somehow I never felt much of an emotional connection with the play. I’m not sure why. Some of it may have been that I was having difficulty catching a lot of the dialogue, possibly because of my being deaf in one ear and possibly because some of it seemed to be in a strong dialect I’m not used to. Some of it may have been that I know just about nothing about the black culture of the period — the 1910s. There are, for example, many references late in the play to the Joe Turner of the title, and unless I missed something (certainly a possibility) it was never really explained who he was or how it was that he was still allowed to enslave people decades after the end of slavery, and it may be that this is something in American history just about everyone but me knows about. Some of it may have just been that I was very tired after several long days of work in a row. For whatever combination of reasons, I had trouble following parts of the play.

And that was frustrating because the play is colorful, the characters are interesting and lively, the acting was good, but somehow I just never connected with the spiritual journey at the heart of the piece. I think I understood it intellectually but it didn’t touch me emotionally. I felt I was watching it happen as a detached observer rather than taking the journey vicariously along with Herald Loomis.

I can give dramaturgical reasons for why that might be, I’m just not sure whether the fault lies in the construction of the play or with my own limitations in concentrating last night, or just my limitations in general. I mean, this is not exactly a play that has lacked for acclaim, and the audience around me certainly appeared to be completely caught up in it.

Still, it occurred to me while thinking about it today that, in terms of usual dramatic structure, the real protagonist is Herald Loomis — the emotional breakthrough at the climax of the play is his, and it is the direction of his life far more than any other that is going to be forever changed by it.

Structurally, that ought to make him the central character. Yet he’s not treated as the central character. Far more prominence is given in the first half or two thirds of the play to Seth Holly, who owns the boardinghouse, his wife Bertha, and Bynum Walker, a boarder who practices some kind of voodoo that I didn’t understand very well but who enables Herald to make his breakthrough. (It was Bynum, by the way, whose lines I had the most trouble catching, which is a shame since he seems to me to the most interesting character in the play. I did notice with some annoyance that some of his longer scenes were blocked so that he was turned three quarters away from the audience, so that I was looking at the back of his head while trying to make out what he was saying. Frustrating.)

These three are truly wonderful and distinctive characters and they completely engaged my interest, and then there are several lighter subplots working themselves out among the other boarders and capturing my interest as well, and then into this vivid, lively world Herald Loomis enters looking for all the world like the cardboard villain of a melodrama, and we learn very little about him for a very long time. The play is more than half over before he does much more than pace gloomily and glower at people; only in the last five minutes or so of the first act do we start to see him from the inside and begin to understand his suffering in his heart. And as a result, when events reach their climax near the end of the second act, we don’t — well, at least I didn’t — feel that I’ve spent enough time getting to know him so that I can follow along with him in his spiritual breakthrough.

By the usual principles of dramatic construction, this is weak. A play is structured around conflicts, the most important of those conflicts is the one that is resolved at the climax of the play, and the character whose conflict it is, is the protagonist. The playwright’s job is to create empathy (note: not the same as sympathy) in the audience for the protagonist, so that the listeners identify with the protagonist’s situation and share vicariously in his or her transformation at the climax. August Wilson, though, spent more than half the play leading us — and very skillfully, too — to identify with just about everybody but Herald Loomis. He starts only very late in the play to change course and put more emphasis on Loomis, and for whatever reason, it didn’t work for me last night.

But I hate to say it’s because of the construction, because the play has clearly worked for so many people and because I know very well that sometimes an unorthodox dramatic structure is precisely what is needed to create a powerful play.

So maybe it’s because I wasn’t hearing very well and missed some important points, or maybe I was just too tired to concentrate enough. I’m not sure.

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