Metro Weekly

Heartbreak Hotel

August Wilson's ''Come and Gone,'' and ''The Syringa Tree'' at Studio Theatre

It’s 1911. Seth and Bertha Holly (Randall Shepperd and Lynn Chavis) run a modest boarding house in Pittsburgh where guests stay as long as they please — so long as they can pay their two dollars in rent for the week. It’s a warm, friendly environment where all the tenants get along. One day a mysterious, edgy stranger named Herald Loomis (Kevin Jiggetts) arrives with daughter in tow, and the household’s delicate balance is upset.

So sets the stage for August Wilson’s stunning drama Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. Wilson penned Joe Turner in 1986 as part of an ongoing repertoire of plays designed to reflect several decades of the African-American experience. His works, which include Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and Fences, typically mesh history with fiction. True to form, in Joe Turner Wilson conjures up a melancholy story that marries the legend of blues singer Turner with the optimism of faith and the power of spiritual healing.

Back at that boarding house, it isn’t long before Loomis reveals that he’s come to Pittsburgh in search of his wife, Martha, missing for seven years. Seth finds Loomis’s story suspect, but one of the tenants, Bynum Walker (Frederick Strother), believes that he can help Loomis find Martha. Yet, in Wilson’s world of bringers, finders and binders, it will take more than a missing wife to bring peace to the haunted wanderer.

Come and Gone
By August Wilson
To 3/7/04
In the KenCen
AFI Theatre

Director Jennifer L. Nelson implicitly trusts the playwright’s vision, resulting in an evenly-paced production that taps into subtle nuances, while delivering a powerful blow at its exhausting and cathartic conclusion.

Strother paints a fascinating, endearing portrait of Walker. Shepperd’s Seth offers plenty of quirks and comic relief, and Jiggetts commits himself to an arresting, somber portrayal of Loomis. Maconnia Chesser lends a brave, sympathetic face to vulnerable Mattie Campbell, and Chavis is a gem as Bertha Holly, but it is Dawn Ursula’s Martha Loomis who steals the evening. In the small but significant role originated on Broadway in 1988 by Angela Bassett, Ursula delivers a passionate, powerhouse performance that trembles with dramatic force.

As produced by the African Continuum Theatre Company, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone is everything superb theatre should be: enlightening, enhancing, and utterly enthralling.

The Syringa Tree
By Pamela Gien
To 3/14/04
Studio Theatre
1333 P Street NW

The Studio Theatre has extended its limited engagement of Pamela Gien’s The Syringa Tree — and for good reason. Gien’s Obie Award-winning masterpiece is performed by Gin Hammond in an extraordinary solo performance that defines virtuoso. Portraying roughly two-dozen characters in Gien’s intimately engaging, effortless ninety-minute story of Apartheid and post-Apartheid South Africa, Hammond convinces us that, by evening’s end, we have been in the company of everyone from to a three-year-old girl to an 82-year-old man.

Gien has crafted vivid, human characters whose stories linger — the evening’s instinctive emotional investment is difficult to resist. And with her energetic and exhausting performance, Hammond transcends those stories to convey a multitude of lives who have experienced the lessons of Apartheid firsthand.

It’s a beautiful, rich, involving story, and Hammond is, quite simply, wonderful at relating it.