In more than one sense, the voice of August Wilson filled the Huntington Theatre on Wednesday night. And what a welcome sound it was.
Before the performance of Wilson’s “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” began, a recording of the playwright (who died in 2005) came over the sound system. His cadence measured as always, Wilson spelled out the overarching ambition that drove him to write his plays: namely, to illustrate “that there is no idea that cannot be contained by Black life.”
Those words were followed by an outstanding Huntington Theatre Company production that proved Wilson’s proposition. So many ideas, emotions, and states of being are packed into “Joe Turner," and director Lili-Anne Brown and her superlative cast captured them all.
The desire to be bound to someone or something. The corresponding need for salvation and transcendence in either religious or secular form, often translating to love. The pain of separation and solitude and unappeasable loss. The scars left by racial injustice. The resiliency of spirit that refuses to let those scars be the last word on your life.
Wilson’s genius, in play after play, was to embed his themes within a teeming canvas of vividly particularized characters, many of them bursting with outsize personality and stories they want to — and do — tell. In many ways, they tell the story of the 20th century.
In “Joe Turner,” though, the focus is on the most taciturn figure onstage: former church deacon Herald Loomis (James Milord). It is 1911 in Pittsburgh, and Loomis has been traveling from town to town, determined to find his wife, Martha (Patrese D. McClain), from whom he was separated when he was forced to work on a chain gang for seven years.
Finding Martha is central to Herald’s larger quest to, as he puts it late in the play, “Find my starting place in the world. Find me a world I can fit in."
That search lands him and his young daughter, Zonia (Gray Flaherty, who will alternate in the role with Alana Ross), in a boardinghouse run by Seth Holly (Maurice Emmanuel Parent, mining every ounce of comic gold from Seth’s curmudgeonliness) and his wife, Bertha Holly (a serenely imperturbable Shannon Lamb).
Herald is not the only searcher at the boardinghouse. Bynum Walker (Robert Cornelius), part mystic, part philosopher, wants to find the “shiny man” he once encountered who, according to Bynum, possesses the “Secret of Life.” Mattie Campbell (Al-nisa Petty) wants to find the lover who abruptly abandoned her. Jeremy Furlow (Stewart Evan Smith), a cocky young worker on a road crew and part-time guitarist, has his sights set on a more rewarding life — and female companionship. He finds it, first with Mattie and then with the glamorous Molly Cunningham (Dela Meskienyar).
The play unfolds at a time that was within living memory of slavery and at the beginning of the Great Migration, during which roughly 6 million Black people relocated from the American South to states in the North, West, and Midwest over the course of six decades.
The value of “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” — indeed, the enduring value of Wilson’s 10-play “Century Cycle,” with one play set in each decade of the 20th century — is that from those millions he created a host of unforgettable characters. He conveyed the complexity and texture of Black life by capturing the rhythms of everyday speech by everyday people, and the life events they had to cope with, but heightening both with a kind of poetry.
Part of Wilson’s skill lay in his ability to limn aspects of racial injustice and exploitation in a passing phrase. For instance, the outwardly amiable Rutherford Selig (Lewis D. Wheeler), known as the “People Finder” and the man whom Herald hires to find Martha, acquires a more sinister aspect when he blithely mentions, in an oh-by-the-way fashion, that his father had helped capture enslaved people who had escaped from plantation owners.
Wilson’s characters have lost much — or, more precisely, much has been taken from them — often leaving them feeling unmoored, dislocated, dispossessed. But as often as not, their response is to take active steps in the face of systems rigged against them.
For example, the entrepreneurial Seth, who wants to start a business selling pots and pans, tells Bertha that one potential lender demanded that Seth sign over his house to him for the loan. Seth told him where he could get off. Jeremy quits his road job in a fury when a white supervisor demands part of his wages — and those of all the other Black workers — in order to keep their jobs. When Jeremy and Molly decide to become a couple, Molly spells out one nonnegotiable condition in four words that speak volumes: “Molly ain’t going South.”
Herald, for his part, is prepared to go anywhere and everywhere to find Martha. He is haunted by a vision of bones rising from the sea and walking on the water, and the mystical Bynum, who claims to have “a power to bind folks," sees in Herald “a man who done forgot his song”; i.e., who has forgotten who he is.
That obliteration of identity, leaving only the restless quest, comes through forcefully in Milord’s portrayal. The actor conjures a brooding aura that compels your attention, even when, as is often the case, Herald is silent. (In one key scene of revelation, frustratingly, Milord is seated at a table with his back to the audience, depriving us of his reaction.)
For the Huntington Theatre Company, staging a Wilson play to reopen its mainstage after being closed for 941 days due to the pandemic and a 20-month renovation makes an emphatic statement about the playwright’s importance within the company’s four decades of existence.
In pre-show remarks Wednesday night, managing director Michael Maso called Wilson “the single most impactful and transformative artist in Huntington history.” Maso was joined onstage by Boston Mayor Michelle Wu, new Huntington artistic director Loretta Greco, and costume designer Constanza Romero Wilson, the playwright’s widow.
“He is here," Romero told the audience. “He’s talking to us."
Yes, and “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” was a reminder that he always will.
JOE TURNER’S COME AND GONE
Play by August Wilson. Directed by Lili-Anne Brown. Presented by Huntington Theatre Company. At Huntington Theatre, 264 Huntington Ave. Through Nov. 13. Tickets $25-$150. 617-266-0800, www.Huntingtontheatre.org