Thursday, April 16, 2009

Joe Turner’s Come and Gone

Photo: T. Charles Erickson

In light of August Wilson’s preference for African-American directors, it’s interesting to consider what he might have thought about a white man directing the Lincoln Center Theatre production of Joe Turner’s Come and Gone currently playing at the Belasco Theatre. I imagine that, if Wilson were alive to make an exception to his preference, director Bartlett Sher would be that exception. (Wilson knew Sher in Seattle, and Wilson’s widow gave her permission for Sher to direct.) Sher is a brilliant, sensitive director, with an exceptional ability to use theatre space multi-dimensionally. While I frequently feel that I am watching plays from outside, when Sher directs I often feel that I am there--still watching, yes, but there. (With Light in the Piazza, he even managed to make the Vivian Beaumont Theatre feel intimate.) Sher regularly succeeds in bringing a sense of the entire world of a play to life—the surroundings, the culture, the atmosphere, the history. He is a masterful director. (Full disclosure: I briefly knew Sher many years ago in San Diego.)

Nevertheless, I have questions: Would a black director have brought a deeper level of understanding? How would that have changed the production? What would the superb cast have gained by working with a black director--if anything? Would I have a problem with, say, a Chinese woman directing Fiddler on the Roof—or this show? No, but I’m not sure that my opinion is relevant. After all, Wilson also didn’t like “color-blind” casting, and I love it--I even have a dream cast for an all-black A Little Night Music. But would I think an all-white version of Joe Turner’s Come and Gone was a good idea? Hell, no. What’s the difference? Oh, just hundreds of years of history. (I wonder what the cast thought of working with Sher. I wonder if any of them would have preferred an African-American director.)

I am inclined to think that the vibrant brilliance of this production answers all questions and doubts, but I’m not 100% sure.

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