Theater: "Joe Turner's Come..." To Broadway And Will Stay For A While

05/21/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Director Bartlett Sher's revival of August Wilson's magnificent play Joe Turner's Come and Gone has just opened on Broadway courtesy of Lincoln Center to rave reviews.

Set in a Pittsburgh boarding house in 1911, it depicts a brooding man (Chad L. Coleman of The Wire) dragging his daughter along while he searches for the wife he lost when dragooned into de facto slavery by Joe Turner. Coleman is just one of many actors in the show making their Broadway debut, including Ernie Hudson of Ghostbusters as the owner and handsome Andre Holland as a resident who fancies just about any woman standing in front of him. Their acclaimed work just might turn the late Wilson's favorite play into a hit during a season blindsided by an economic downturn and yet crowded with acclaimed new shows.

Ben Brantley of The New York Times said it "feels positively airborne. Much of Bartlett Sher's splendid production, which opened Thursday night at the Belasco Theater, moves with the engaging ease of lively, casual conversation."

Joe Dziemianowicz of the New York Daily News called it an "eloquent revival" and said, "Director Bartlett Sher seamlessly integrates realistic elements and the metaphoric, including the evocative set - fanciful floating windows with a so-real-you'd-pick-it vegetable garden. Sher has staged scenes that are dizzyingly powerful or beautiful (or both) - an ecstatic dance, a furious fit and a shimmering conclusion."

Variety's David Rooney concurs, saying, "August Wilson's gift for storytelling has rarely been more beguiling than in this lyrical 1986 drama, and in his searing revival, director Bartlett Sher makes every note strong and true."

The New York Post and USA Today agreed. Even the more reserved John Simon of Bloomberg added that "Bartlett Sher"s staging adds some unscripted but welcome touches, often visually stunning." It just received Outer Critics Circle nominations for Outstanding Revival of a Play and Outstanding Director of a Play.

But two days before opening, Sher is sitting in his office at Lincoln Center -- where he is the director in residence -- looking rather tired. This might have as much to do with the birth weeks ago of his second child, another daughter, but Sher insists he isn't worn out and eagerly pulls out sketches of costumes for his staging of Tales Of Hoffman at the Met ("It's a cross between Fellini and Chaplin and Kafka," says Sher enthusiasticallly) while praising his wife who gave birth only to see Sher unavoidably plunge into rehearsals for Joe Turner.

Little remarked in Sher's triumph with Wilson's play (the fourth Wilson work to open in New York City since his death in 2005 -- Radio Golf opened and closed on Broadway quickly while three marvelous revivals at Signature Theater Company played to packed houses and extended again and again) is the fact that Sher is white and August Wilson famously pushed for black directors only to helm his work and spoke fervently about the need to support black theater companies.

Sher is scrupulously politic in talking about this, beginning with "back when August Wilson was working..." and offering a long, detailed response that in many ways he would agree with Wilson's position back in the day (which makes it sound like Wilson was writing in the 1950s rather than producing work right up to his death in 2005) but that times had changed and so on. I offer a simpler explanation: Aren't the plays just too good? Wouldn't any director bridle at NOT being allowed to tackle one of America's greatest playwrights? "Exactly," he says.

Calling Wilson just one of America's greatest playwrights might be faint praise. He's certainly the equal of Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller and Eugene O'Neill. But while they all have three or four towering works to their credit, do any of them have six or seven equal to Wilson's best: Joe Turner's Come and Gone, Fences, The Piano Lesson, Two Trains Running, Seven Guitars, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, Jitney and King Hedley II? (Only Gem of The Ocean and Radio Golf are less than great and Golf was solid and Gem will probably raise in stature with a strong revival the way King Hedley II has.)

And calling Sher one of America's greatest directors is starting to seem merely obvious. Has any director ever debuted on Broadway with four such critically acclaimed, diverse shows in a row, each one in a hit in its own right? (Mike NIchols springs to mind but so much of that early success was linked to Neil Simon that it doesn't seem as impressive.)

Sher began with The Light in the Piazza in 2005, a delicate, beautiful work by Craig Lucas and Adam Guettel that won five Tony Awards and ran for more than a year. That was followed by Awake and Sing in 2006, a revival of the seemingly musty Clifford Odets play that sprang to vibrant life with an all-star cast. It was wildly popular during a limited run and won the Tony for Best Revival of a play. Then came 2008's South Pacific, which won every award in sight (including Best Director for Sher) and has been a blockbuster hit from the first preview till today. And now Joe Turner's Come and Gone.

And that string of success doesn't even include his acclaimed operas, his Cymbeline (the first American production of Shakespeare to be staged at the RSC in London) and his ongoing relationship with Seattle's Intiman Theatre.

Getting Sher to discuss this success isn't easy. Asking him what it was like to have such an overwhelming hit show with South Pacific brings out a string of generalized responses. Talk about his work on Joe Turner and Sher would rather talk about others: how he was unfamiliar with the work of Roger Robinson -- who holds the stage so magnificently as Bynum Walker that a Tony nomination if not a win seems almost a foregone conclusion -- and how if he could combine the cast of Joe Turner and Awake and Sing (which included Zoe Wanamaker, Mark Ruffalo, Lauren Ambrose, Pablo Schreiber and Ben Gazzara) he'd have the finest repertory company in the world. Even turning 50 recently hasn't fazed him, even though he admits "the significance of that number is hard to ignore."

The only time the affable Sher is caught short comes when I mention that I was going to see Craig Lucas's The Singing Forest in a few days. He drops his head into his hands for a moment, abashed. "Craig Lucas is one of my best friends," says Sher, who helmed the world premiere of the show in Seattle and in fact staged it twice. "I think maybe I did everything I could with it and it needed a pair of fresh eyes." But the truth is that his obligations -- and opportunities -- are mushrooming -- and Sher simply couldn't do The Singing Forest and it's obviously a painful topic. "I'm sure it will be a huge success," he says, but not being a part of it is clearly difficult for him -- most importantly, it seems, on a personal level.

That is indeed Sher's biggest problem at the moment: everyone wants to work with him. He made his name at Seattle's Intiman Theatre, where he is the artistic director. Sher would clearly love to maintain that relationship, but is it fair to them when so many other places like Broadway are offering ripe opportunities? He wants to stay with them without shortchanging them and the result in recent times has been a year to year renewal of his commitment. "I'm sure we'll work something out," Sher says about the latest negotiations to do what is best for a company he loves.

Then of course there's Bruce Lee: Journey To The West, a new musical he's working on by the two Davids (Yazbeck and Henry Hwang) that uses the Chinese myth of the Monkey King to mirror Bruce Lee's rise in the West from a joke to a pop culture phenomenon to a force to be reckoned with.

Sher is off and running when he can discuss an upcoming project or the paintings and books that influenced his research into Joe Turner's Come and Gone (such as Slavery By Another Name, which just won the Pulitzer Prize.). Politics -- even less a personal topic -- energizes him as well. "I think Paul Krugman is purposefully leaning towards the far left so that Obama can seem more centrist," says Sher. And in a way Obama even influenced Sher's decision to tackle this particular August Wilson play at this point in history.

"Every show I do has to speak to the times," says Sher. The finale is bloody and wrenching but somehow hopeful, with the characters stepping out of the darkness of slavery into an unknown future filled with danger but at least the possibility of something better. After eight years of Bush, that's where Sher sees America: shaking off a terrible period and facing East.