Fever Dreams

Tuesday February 07, 06
by Dalt Wonk, Gambit Weekly

Over a year ago, I had a brain surgery. Since then, I rarely remember my dreams. Nonetheless, I wake up in the grip of obscure emotions and moods. These probably rise from the dreams I don't remember.

In that way, I am similar to the African Americans in August Wilson's strange play Joe Turner's Come and Gone, currently on the boards at the Anthony Bean Community Theater. Wilson's characters seem to be struggling with a collective unconscious of unremembered dreams. This makes for a haunting and haunted psychic world.

The play is set in a boarding house in Philadelphia in the 1920s. Seth Holly (Wilbert Williams) and his wife, Bertha (Gwendolyne Foxworth), are the proprietors. Among their boarders are Jeremy (Donald Lewis), a young man who works with a road-building crew and Bynum (Harold Evans), who is a rootworker -- a sort of conjure man/spiritual advisor. All these folks -- plus several others who drop in along the way -- have their own obsessions and problems. But what propels the main plot is the arrival of a sullen, troubled wanderer named Herald Loomis (Oliver Thomas), with his young daughter in tow. Loomis is on a quest to find his missing wife.

This theme of finding a missing person (and it's implied counter-theme of separation and loss) runs through Joe Turner like a fever. The only white man in the story, a door-to-door salesman named Selig, has a side business as a "people finder." Give him a dollar, and he'll put your missing man or woman on his look-for list. In the chaos of the black migration north, it seems, losing people is the norm. Now, losing people is a real, everyday sort of weirdness. But, in Joe Turner, Wilson has turned loose a deeper, more troubling and dreamlike sort of weirdness. Take the conjure man, Bynum. The person he's searching for is an anonymous "shining man" that he ran into once on an anonymous "road." The shining man took him on a journey to a magical place, where everything was bigger than life. There, Bynum met his father (a ghost? a spirit?) who taught Bynum his own inner "song." By "song," Bynum means more than a melody; he means his one true mystic identity. Bynum's song gives him the power to "bind" people, to bring them together.

Are we dealing with fragments of some vaguely remembered African religion? Are we dealing with passed-down stories of the horrors of the Middle Passage and slavery? Are we dealing with hallucinations and superstitions? Maybe only August Wilson knows. But one thing is sure: The familiar, normal, visible aspect of the world that these characters move through is not the decisive factor. An invisible world -- be it of dreams or ancestral memories -- flashes out (often when least expected) and harries these descendants of slaves, like the Fate or the Furies harried the tragic aristocrats of ancient Greece.

In any case, director Anthony Bean assembled an impressive cast that brought this intense, preternatural boarding house to vivid and, for the most part, convincing life. Brittney James and Karen-Kaia Livers were noteworthy in two peripheral but important roles. Third-grader Chloe Tills and 10-year-old Tony Felix charmed us as the upcoming generation.

A tip of the hat to John Grimsley and Scott Edwards for their attractive set and to the Anthony Bean Community Theater for a continued improvement in production values.