Transformative. That’s what it was like to watch Keith David, S. Epatha Merkerson, Roger Robinson and Taraji P. Henson bring to life Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson’s legendary play, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.
Presented by The Greene Space and directed by Tony Award-winning actress Phylicia Rashad, Joe Turner was performed as a part of the historic reading and recording of all 10 works of Wilson’s American Century Cycle, his decade-by-decade chronicle and celebration of African-American life in the 20th century.
Joe Turner is the second play in Wilson’s series, set in Pittsburgh in 1911. But as Henson noted in a chat with media just before the live audio recording, Wilson’s work is timeless and feels like “home... even though it was from a time that was way beyond when I was even thought of.”
The artistic director of the reading and recording series, Tony Award-winner and Wilson collaborator Ruben Santiago-Hudson, echoed the significance of both Wilson and the recording of his work, saying, “If you remove August Wilson from the American theater landscape, no one in his room could name five original Black plays in 30 years. You get to three and start looking around. So that is the impact August Wilson had on American theater. He changed the whole landscape.”
As for why Wilson’s plays are being recorded in 2013, Santiago-Hudson says, “It’s just time for us as African-American artists to embrace what belongs to us and disseminate it to the nation and to the world. You can’t name something that belongs to us more than August Wilson because he wrote [the American Century Cycle] to celebrate [African-American] people and culture, decade by decade. No writer, Black, White or otherwise has ever accomplished that.
“August Wilson is the guy who provided that [space] where we can come in and speak as loud, as brash, as disdainful, as angry, as joyful, as loving and poetic as we possibly could, unapologetically.”
“The thing about August,” Rashad added, “is that he was determined that his plays would be produced on the Broadway stage. And in doing so what he did was elevate the salt-of-the-earth people, his characters, to the highest stage in theater. These are people who, if you walked past them on the street, you’d just keep walking. But he shows you the beauty, the power, the strength and complexity, the struggle of their lives, and he makes us care about them. And in caring about them so much is revealed about our own selves. This goes beyond African-American culture [to something universal].”
Finally, actress S. Epatha Merkerson spoke of Wilson as an African-American historian, saying, “Our words, our lives, our actions are deposited and rest in these plays. And how wonderful to archive it in this way. What an amazing opportunity to have this work.”
The last play in the cycle, Radio Golf, was recorded this past weekend at The Greene Space, and audio recordings of all 10 plays will be available online for on-demand streaming in early 2014 here.