I recently went to see one of my favorite August Wilson plays, "Joe Turner's Come & Gone" in NYC because it was getting "rave" reviews by the NY critics and I hadn't seen it staged for a while. My sister, brother-in-law and I were hyped to see it and wondered how we'd like it compared to the original production we all had seen.
Anyone who is in love with August Wilson's work as much as I am knows that the direction of his work is critical because the work is so nuanced, things can go real haywire if that piece of the presentation equation is not just right. Well it was not "just right" for this production! In fact it was "just wrong"! I kept expecting August to come down and say "stop this madness!"
OK, in the interest of full disclosure I should say that what this rant is really about is the notion of white directors directing Black plays. I know there is a lot of controversy about this topic and I certainly believe there may be some validity to the idea that a great director can direct any play. But this play, as do all of Wilson's works, demands a sensitivity to black life that I am not convinced can be felt by anyone other than black people (and frankly, not all black people for that matter). The main problem with this production was a lack of subtlety and the ignoring of that wonderfully nuanced manner of writing so beloved in Wilson's work. Everyone operated at full throttle, almost over the top at all times, making me feel like I wanted to turn down the volume five notches! The " I'm a tortured black man" quivering voice delivery of Herald Loomis (you've all heard it in the 70s black exploitation films of old!) made me want to run up on stage and slap him into realness.
Maybe I've been spoiled and maybe it's unfair to compare productions that were directed by Lloyd Richards with the blessing of August Wilson to this one but I can't help but to wonder what both would say about this staging of "Joe Turner...". August was a firm believer in the idea that black theater needed to be executed by black people. He caught a lot of flack for this stance but never backed down from it. I understand his point and appreciate it given the fact that we as a people are still trying to get our authentic voice heard in all areas of the arts but particularly in the dramatic arts. We still see way too many stereotypical depictions of our life in America whenever the telling is left to others. Sure on occasion, someone non-black comes close but I can't think of a single white writer or director who's gotten it right on. Like many, I do believe that our stories resonate universally but that does not translate into them being exactly like anyone else's story. The universality comes in the sub-text: ideas of family torn apart; love gone wrong; dreams shattered; etc. But, as the cliche goes, "the devil is in the details" and the details of all Wilson plays are what cannot be compromised as they provide the authenticity of the black experience; at least this can be said about the black experience prior to the 21st century dawning. August understood this better than anyone which is why his portfolio of work tells our story so completely, so complexly, so compellingly. It's a difficult story to sum up in an evening's sitting and it's a story I have not experienced in a Wilson staging without ending it with tears, that is until I saw this latest staging. This one ended with me mad as hell! I felt cheated; like I had been hoodwinked. My sister and brother-in-law felt the same way and we couldn't help comparing it to our past experiences. I guess we'll have to get a few more years past knowing what Black Life in America was like and in many places continues to be before I can accept a reinterpretation of August Wilson's work. Right now I think it's too fresh on my mind despite the "post-racial" dynamic we're seeing in American political and social discourse. August Wilson and Lloyd Richards were clear on how our story needed to be framed and presented and I appreciate their steadfast insistence that it be told by us albeit for everyone to experience.