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TVa's "Joe Turner's Come and Gone" finds African Americans lost in the middle ground between slavery and freedom. 

Betwixt and Between

First, let's all concede that August Wilson is a genius and move on. With "Joe Turner's Come and Gone," the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright conjures up a vivid and profound vision of black American life in the early 1900s and enriches it with numerous layers of meaning and symbolism. His characters are stuck between conflicting forces: an old lover and a new flame; a steady job and a life on the road; the past and the future. In telling us their stories, Wilson reveals how an entire race struggled in the middle ground between slavery and freedom. In TheatreVirginia's production, this hearty mixture of history and psychology is spiced up with several authentic performances and served up well-done by director Kent Gash. The talented director illuminates the spiritual underpinnings of the story without losing a strong expositional thread. But, while Gash (working with lighting designer William H. Grant III) uses dramatic lighting effects to intensify some of the play's metaphysical moments, he shies away from using all the theatrical magic at his disposal. Some imaginative staging or a more liberal use of sound could have filled out this production, edging it up from excellent to truly transcendent. Dancing at the center of "Joe Turner" is Bynum (Rodney Scott Hudson), a voodoo witch doctor of sorts, who lives in a Pittsburgh boarding house where he dispenses worldly wisdom to the tenants. In the heat of the summer of 1911, Herald Loomis (Marcus Naylor) walks through the door with his young daughter, Zonia (Chloe Stepney), in tow, looking for his long-lost wife. From that moment on, Bynum and Loomis are intertwined. While various interpersonal sagas play on around them, the two men wage a spiritual and psychological battle that will lead Loomis either to his destruction or to his salvation. As Bynum, Hudson is a frenzy of gestures and inflections. It is impossible not to watch him to see what he'll come up with next. But more impressive than Hudson's flashy performance is the calm and confident work of Gail Grate and Terry Alexander as Bertha and Seth, the owners of the boarding house. Bertha is the Pollyanna of the place and, as played by Grate, she balances Seth's curmudgeonly attitude perfectly. Thomas Corey Robinson deftly mixes an earnest simple-mindedness with a devilish sexuality in his portrayal of Jeremy Furlow, a day-laborer who seems bent on seducing every female tenant that comes along. In the pivotal role of Loomis, Naylor is a fierce and foreboding presence; he has a stare that could stop traffic. But Naylor may have still been working out some jitters in the preview performance I saw. He seemed to lose focus in some of the climatic second act scenes. Gash, who directed "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" at TVa last year, has once again brought a challenging show to life with "Joe Turner." This is a play that infuses American history with resonance and depth — it will stick with you long after you've come and
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