Indeed, on the basis of this sympathetically probing treatment, the drama -- albeit one packed with abundant comic flourishes -- can absolutely be ranked alongside the best pieces of American theater ever written. That's not to say, though, that the work -- which was first presented on Broadway in 1988 under Lloyd's Richards' direction -- diminishes the other nine plays in Wilson's "Pittsburgh Hill" cycle, all devoted to exploring with a keen eye, warm heart, and fathomless soul the 20th-century African-American experience.
Set in 1911, Joe Turner deals with the crucial step forward an oppressed population makes after emancipation, and, in doing so, rediscovers a bravura voice that has been stifled for so long. Indeed, as aging conjure-man Bynum (Roger Robinson) putters around the boarding-house run by the solid Seth Holly (Ernie Hudson) and his good-hearted, down-to-earth wife Bertha Holly (LaTanya Richardson Jackson), he insists that knowing one's own song is irresolutely obligatory.
Reiterating his message to anyone requesting his services as a "binder" (an agent for bringing people together), Bynum promotes a personal song to the house's many boarders, including impetuous railroad worker Jeremy Furlow (Andre Holland), romantically challenged Matty Campbell (Marsha Stephanie Blake), man-eating Molly Cunningham (Aunjanue Ellis) and most fervently, dour and driven Herald Loomis (Chad L. Coleman), who has been searching for four years -- along with young daughter Zonia (Amari Rose Leigh) -- for his missing wife, Martha (Danai Gurira). And don't think for a moment that the name "Herald" is accidental. Wilson uses it to indicate that its bearer -- a deacon forced into seven years of post-Civil War slavery by the eponymous Joe Turner before being once again liberated -- represents the black man on his road. Indeed, the notion of "road" is mentioned repeatedly in the script to herald the future; as it now turns out, that "road" can be seen as one leading eventually to the White House.
The ensemble, which also features Arliss Howard (the show's sole white cast member) as Rutherford Selig, a peddler specializing in finding missing persons, and Michael Cummings as Reuben Scott, a feisty young neighbor, is uniformly excellent at depicting unconsciously poetic citizens undergoing change, whether from country habits to industrializing city ways, from superstitious inclinations to hard-nosed practicality, or from chains to challenge. Praise is to especially be heaped on the brooding Coleman and the sagacious Robinson in the most pivotal roles, costumer Catherine Zuber, and set designer Michael Yeargan, who creates the kind of shifting, suggestive surroundings Sher wanted as a horizon-broadening alternative to the realistic environment Wilson liked for his too-often confined characters.
By the way, Sher, who won the Tony Award last year for South Pacific, is the first white director to helm a Wilson play in such a major production -- an idea the playwright might not have approved of if he were alive. Yet, the sensitive job Sher does here not only underscores the universal implications of the piece, but causes the play to awake and -- as Wilson surely wanted -- sing.