By JOHN BURNETT
Tribune-Herald staff writer
The University of Hawaii at Hilo Performing Arts Department’s production of “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” by African-American playwright August Wilson opened last night at UHH’s Performing Arts Center, with three more performances scheduled: tonight and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m.
Ken Elliott, a Los Angeles actor and director who moved to the island after appearing with Jason Scott Lee in Lanford Wilson’s “Burn This” at Ulua Theater in Volcano, will direct the play, set in 1911 in a Pittsburgh boarding house.
“Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” is the second installment of Wilson’s series, “The Pittsburgh Cycle,” which is a decade-by-decade chronicle of the African-American experience. Turner’s name, appropriated from an old blues song, is a reference to Joe Turney, a real-life brother of a Tennsee governor, who illegally kidnapped freed and runaway slaves.
“This gripping drama explores the African-American experience of living in times of slavery with unknown circumstances, exploring social structures, racism, migration, self-identification, spirituality, blood lines and how we make personal choices that we hope enhance our lives,” said Elliott, whose acting career includes guest appearances on the TV series “Lost” and “Cold Case” — the latter performance, a spot-on portrayal of Rock & Roll Hall of Famer Little Richard.
One of Elliott’s first challenges was to come up with an African-American cast in a town with a population less than one percent black.
“That’s the only way I could direct this,” he said. “I wanted to take on the challenge because everyone pretty much knew the same language.”
The cast includes: Michele Dalthon and Sharon Purnell as the boarding house owners, Seth and Bertha Holly; Raymond Johnson as Bynum Walker, a conjure man; Mark Lewis as the people finder, Rutherford Selig; Terrence Bryant as Jeremy Furlow, a guitar-wielding worker; Leah Wilson as Mattie Campbell, a woman looking for her lost love; Zadhi Folley-Regusters as Molly, a woman looking for love; Justin Chittams as Herald Loomis, who has traveled extensively with his daughter, Zonia (Hali Prince), searching for his wife; Beckie Marshall as the wife, Martha Pentecost; and Soloman Shumate, as the neighbor, Reuben.
“I love the way this came together. Only 13 people auditioned for an 11-member cast, so it just came out of the woodwork,” Elliott said. “Half the cast has never been onstage and the other half have performed to some extent. I’m really pleased with them.”
One particularly fortuitous piece of casting, Elliott said, is that of Johnson, who had a long career as a character actor in television and films, including a role in the Clint Eastwood classic “Dirty Harry.”
“You’ve probably seen him jaunting around Hilo in his African beads and bangles,” he said. “I had cast him in in my mind and he ended up coming to auditions — and I couldn’t be happier. He probably wouldn’t tell you this and I’m probably telling you out of context, but he’s 80 years old and he’s one of my major gifts in the show, because he said he’s been waiting for this most of his life.”
Wilson, who won two Pulitzers for “The Pittsburgh Cycle” is an iconic figure in American theater. Elliott considers himself blessed to have worked with him in the world premiere of King Hedley II — another play in “The Pittsburgh Cycle” — at L.A.’s Mark Taper Forum in 2000, five years prior to the playwright’s death.
“Just watching his process and his passion, watching the action and trying to get the poetry right, gave me the opportunity to try to dissect and digest August Wilson,” Elliott said. “I’m excited about this.”
Tickets are general admission and are $12 general, $7 discount and $5 for UHH and Hawaii Community College students and children 17 and younger, and are available by calling the UHH box office at 974-7310 or ordering online at artscenter.uhh.hawaii.edu.
Email John Burnett at firstname.lastname@example.org.