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Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, August Wilson (1984)

I know theater is literally, by definition, histrionic. Still, it’s frustrating that when I go to see a Broadway play for the first time in I don’t know, twenty years, and I very deliberately choose what I’ve been assured by reviews is a serious piece of literature, what I get is a lot of anguished howling, comedy broader than a barn door, and I’m sorry, but a fairly cheap and predictable catharsis. Also, when important things are going to happen, there are thunderstorms.

Three things saved the evening. First, simply, the material. The horrors of slavery are often represented in art and history, but we see, hear, and think a great deal less about the pathos of its aftermath, when (ostensibly) free people found that their new lives, though certainly better than the old, were defined by dislocation, uncertainty, alienation, and deracination. While the characters in the play represent these problems a little too programmatically for my taste, it’s undeniable that they do represent them, and that there’s value in that.

Second, the soliloquies. The play’s dialogue is for the most part strictly purpose-driven: it advances the plot and/or lays out the themes. But in some of the longer speeches a genuine poetry — earthy but ambiguous, believable but weird — bubbles up and gives you the shivers.

Finally, just being there. Noticing when someone missed a cue. Each moment of the performance coming into existence and disappearing forever. The smell of sulfur when someone lit a match. Bodies in the seats, bodies on the stage. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed just being there.

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