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Early struggles of freed slaves subject of drama

THE world of playwright August Wilson's latest work, ``Joe Turner's Come and Gone,'' is Pittsburgh, 1911 -- a time when, as the preface states, ``the fires of the steel mill rage . . . the city flexes its muscles.'' It is on this landscape, seething with industrial progress, that Wilson has placed his characters: newly freed African slaves who have wandered north in search of their identity on this new land. Historically, the journey unfolded with despair, and no small amount of irony, since conditions in the North were often as bad as in the South. But in the hands of this increasingly accomplished playwright, the journey also becomes one of epiphany.

For Wilson -- whose previous works, ``Ma Rainey's Black Bottom'' and ``Fences,'' traced black Americans through two equally pivotal decades, the 1920s and 1950s -- historical antecedent becomes the catalyst for individual moral choice. Wilson's characters, those peopling Seth and Bertha Holly's Pittsburgh boarding house, provide an apt canvas on which such choices are drawn.

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In the warmth of the Hollys' kitchen and front parlor, an extended family of former slaves assembles with ``Bibles and guitars.'' In search of jobs and dispersed family members, Wilson's characters confront not only the ruling white community -- in the form of unseen bosses and Rutherford Selig, a traveling salesman and former tracker of runaway slaves -- but also each other.

Seth Holly, the freeborn son of Northern parents, has a passion for skilled trades that is exceeded only by his disdain for the religious mysticism practiced by boarder Bynum Walker. A self-described ``binding man,'' Walker works his powers to reconnect those people lost to each other, and, more important, those people lost to themselves. While that description fits every boarder in the house to some degree, it is most applicable to Herald Loomis, a mysterious and forbidding stranger who arrives on the boardinghouse doorstep. After seven years of enforced servitude at the hands of bounty hunter Joe Turner of the play's title, Loomis is now in search of his wife, the mother of his daughter, Zonia. It is Walker, however, who sees Loomis's journey as metaphysical, referring to it as ``a song in search of itself.''

As in Wilson's other works, music plays an important role in this Yale Repertory Theatre production of ``Joe Turner'' (running through May 24). Whether it is the insistent beat of the hand-clapped juba, the folk song of the play's title, or the guitar-strumming of Jeremy, a manual laborer who sees his future in his musicmaking talents, Wilson's characters cannot escape these songs of themselves. As Walker says, a man who is so bound up with the past as to have forgotten his song is not a free man.

In Loomis's case, this journey toward self-knowledge includes two apocalyptic moments -- moments that bracket Acts I and II. In the first of those cathartic steps toward freedom, Loomis confronts his frightening vision of ``bones walking on top of water'' -- a mythic image of the initial enslavement of African blacks. That Walker has long had the same vision, and shares in this expunging of it, unites the two men in a symbiotic relationship unseen in any of Wilson's previous work. In the play's final scene, Loomis confronts both Christianity and African myth and, with a single symbolic act, finds himself a free man.

If ``Joe Turner'' is Wilson's most overtly metaphysical work to date, it is also his most satisfying. Though the religious and mythic metaphors threaten at times to engulf the work in easy platitudes, they also imbue it with a poetic sensibility not evident in ``Ma Rainey'' or ``Fences.'' It is that play that echoes most clearly Wilson's earlier work as a published poet.

Lloyd Richards's able direction keeps pace with this new ethic. Having directed both of Wilson's earlier plays, Mr. Richards has a nuanced touch corresponding closely to that of the author.

Charles S. Dutton, who played the impetuous young trumpeter in ``Ma Rainey,'' is equally mesmeric here as Loomis. As Walker, Ed Hall more than holds his own against the formidable Dutton.

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There is also fine work from Kimberly Scott, L. Scott Caldwell, and Bo Rucker. Scott Bradley's set conveys a sense both of domesticity and of threatening industrialization that is thematically appropriate.

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