At the opening-night performance of Black Theatre Troupe's Joe Turner's Come and Gone, Mike Traylor and Rod Ambrose ad-libbed for what seemed like hours, repeating their lines and pouring themselves more coffee while they waited for Gary Imel to show up and hit his marks. These several hilariously awful minutes set the tone for the evening, which was blighted with deadly pacing and direction so flaccid that the audience mistook the program for a comedy.
In August Wilson's historical drama, characters converge in the kitchen of a black boarding house in the Pittsburgh of 1911, where they recall the road from slavery and the migration from their sharecropping South to the newly industrialized North. Seth Holly (Traylor) and his wife, Bertha (Martaé), welcome boarders, each of whom arrives in search of something: Bynum Walker (Ambrose) is looking for the symbolic salvation of the "shiny man" he met once; Jeremy (Lorin Aykers) wants a life free from work and filled with song; Harold Loomis (Kwane Vedrene) is hunting the wife who abandoned him during his illegal bondage to Mississippi bounty hunter Joe Turner. Every one of them is searching for freedom from a metaphorical Joe Turner -- Wilson's symbol of white oppression, recalled repeatedly in the W.C. Handy song that Ambrose intones throughout -- and each must find a way to dispel the memory of his former slavery in order to reach that end.
Although it has -- like most of Wilson's plays -- plenty of humorous moments, Joe Turner is not a comedy, and the actors looked rightly vexed at the ample shouts of laughter that greeted their most solemn speeches on opening night. Allowed by director Kenneth W. Daugherty to overact maniacally, the cast brought new and unintentional humor to Wilson's boarding-house drama. The audience squealed with glee when Harold, in what was meant as an erotic flirtation, tells a female boarder, "I can smell you from here." And Vedrene's stoop-backed pacing, intended as intimidating and scary (and which I found enormously effective), was greeted with hoots and belly laughs.
The audience -- filled on this night with unimaginably impolite patrons whose cell phones rang and whose camera flashes popped -- can't be blamed for misreading Daugherty's inept direction. His sluggish pacing, coupled with Wilson's already overlong first act and several unrefined performances, give the impression that this is a languid tale of fun-loving former slaves ruminating on their new freedom. Wilson intended Joe Turner as something more.
Were the rest of the evening as consistent in its failure, the whole show could be dismissed. But several standout performances elevate this production, most notably Vedrene's perfectly sinister performance as Harold Loomis. The story doesn't truly begin until Vedrene's character tromps onto the stage, and his big scene, in which he relives a vision of bones walking across water, is astonishing in its intensity. Ambrose's Bynum Walker, who endlessly sings the title song, captures the play's real music: its language, which he gloriously serves in several well-toned monologues on transitional black America.
Unfortunately, these performances share the stage with those of Martaé, whose acting technique involves pausing a full three beats before saying each of her lines, which she invariably flubs, and Rico Burton, whose emoting is barely audible. It isn't until the cast joins in a spontaneous African "juba" that these actors make their presence felt; once the dancing and singing end, they return to their undistinguished stance in the shadows of the stage.
Wilson's characters refer often to the "heebie-jeebie nonsense" of Bynum Walker's beliefs, but the real nonsense here is what Daugherty has made of Wilson's panoramic drama. The resulting three hours is as ridiculous as the big plastic knife its antihero brandishes just before the final curtain, a knife meant to represent pain and suffering but which was, in this production, greeted with giggles and guffaws.
Joe Turner's Come and Gone continues through Sunday, April 16, at the Helen K. Mason Center for the Performing Arts, 333 East Portland.