The great Langston Hughes titled a volume of his autobiography I Wonder as I Wander, invoking the notion of the poet in terms entirely personal and inevitably representative of a whole people, violently unsettled by history and restlessly searching for meaning, home, dignity in short, for themselves. In Hughes’ art, this dovetailed with the image of the poet as blues singer and the blues singer as poet. His writing signaled that vernacular music as secular and sacred verse to a population caught up in forces larger than itself, but marked nevertheless by millions of singular experiences given individual voice in song.
The same themes of displacement and song run compellingly throughout the late August Wilson’s magisterial 10-play cycle of the African American 20th century, and rarely as forcefully as in 1988’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, currently receiving director Delroy Lindo’s fine, impressively cast production at the Berkeley Rep. But Hughes’ title applies readily to another great historical population as treated in another revival this month, making the stories evoked in Joe Turner and Traveling Jewish Theatre’s less successful The Last Yiddish Poet touchstones of broadly but pointedly similar significance.
Set in 1911 during the great migration of African Americans northward, Joe Turner‘s action unfolds in Pittsburgh’s Hill District. The setting is a boardinghouse operated by the basically decent but huffy Seth Holly (Barry Shabaka Henley) and his kindhearted wife, Bertha (Kim Staunton). Into this warm, burnished house comes a small assortment of transient borders, all more or less fresh from the South: the headstrong guitar player and manual laborer Jeremy (Don Guillory), the lovelorn Mattie (Tiffany Michelle Thompson), and the fiercely independent beauty Molly (Erica Peeples).
They join a more permanent lodger, pigeon-catching backyard shaman Bynum Walker (Brent Jennings). The Hollys are descendants of Northern freemen, but the others are a mere generation from slavery possibly excepting Bynum, old enough to have been born a slave, and not counting the play’s lone white character, merchant Rutherford Selig (Dan Hiatt), who, as a descendant of slave catchers, has adapted unselfconsciously as a "people finder" among rootless African American migrants.
The main plot of Wilson’s evocative, earthy, and humor-laden tale of disunion, reunion, and fractured identities takes hold with the arrival of the grimly forlorn, vaguely menacing Herald Loomis (Teagle F. Bougere). Loomis’ story makes bitter sense of the play’s title, a blues lyric repeated throughout by Bynum and fashioned by Southern women whose men were disappeared and forced into labor by the infamous Joe Turner. Since his release from bondage, the anguished and haunted Loomis, a former deacon, has searched with trancelike focus for the mother of his shy daughter (Inglish Amore Hills, alternating with Nia Reneé Warren). The Hollys’ boardinghouse takes on the baleful aspect of Loomis‘ entombed soul as his violent outbursts of protest and revelation and the mediating, ministering wisdom of the perspicacious, wondering Bynum edge the play beyond naturalism toward a mythopoesis of half-submerged history.
The resurrection of history and half-buried tradition, as well as the literal voicing of experience and identity, is also at the center of The Last Yiddish Poet, an otherwise very different kind of play from Joe Turner. Originally produced by Traveling Jewish Theatre in 1980 and now revived to lead off its 30th-anniversary season, the production is aptly peripatetic in structure as well as theme: two actors in vaudevillian comic getup (artistic director Aaron Davidman and TJT cofounder Corey Fischer, also the play’s cocreator and half of the original cast) roam about a limbolike white-on-white set scattered with occasional detritus, most particularly and strikingly a pyramidal display at the far left of the stage on which a mound of books lie in disarray. The actors eventually mount a low stage within the stage, behind a row of modest footlights composed of painted tin cans, and amid knowing cornball lines they announce that they are speaking in "Yiddish" accents, despite not knowing Yiddish, so that the audience will recognize their Yankee selves as Jews.
What follows is a reclamation of the language as a search for identity and authenticity, in several dramatic and musical modes and moods and in struggle with manifold forces of history, from assimilation to persecution to the blunt inconstancy of time itself. Director, cocreator, and TJT cofounder Naomi Newman admits in her program notes that reentering the play after many years was not as easy as expected. Much has changed with respect to the place of Yiddish in Jewish lives. There is a quality of hesitation in the updated staging, which undermines some of its poignancy, although the awkwardness disappears at key moments, including Fischer’s hulking, half-masked portrayal of Nakhman the rebbe known for contributions spiritual and literary in Yiddish and second-generation TJT artist Davidman’s channeling of formerly unfamiliar Yiddish verses, in what amounts to an act of possession in at least two senses. *
JOE TURNER’S COME AND GONE
Through Dec. 14
Tues. and Fri., 8 p.m.; Wed., 7 p.m.; Thurs. (except Nov. 27) and Sat., 2 (except Sat/22 and Dec. 11) and 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 and 7 p.m.; $13.50$71
Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison, Berk.
THE LAST YIDDISH POET
Through Dec. 14
Thurs.Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; $30$34
Traveling Jewish Theatre