Rosalind Bell’s been waiting a long, long time for this Saturday night – but that will just make the moment all the sweeter. As the lights go up on August Wilson’s classic “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” on Tacoma’s Theatre on the Square stage – running through Feb. 23 – they’ll spotlight the culmination of a six-year partnership of readings of this renowned African American playwright’s work. And for Bell – who’s directing – they’ll illuminate a long-held dream.
“It’s a dream,” said Bell, who acted in the first reading and has directed the rest. “It really is a dream. The Seattle area has done a lot of August Wilson – but that’s not the rest of Puget Sound.”
The production is the pinnacle of six years of partnership between the Northwest Playwrights Alliance (of which Bell is a member), the Broadway Center and the Washington State History Museum, who have presented readings every few months in the museum’s small theater of Wilson’s complete 10-play Pittsburgh cycle. The plays tell stories from lives of African Americans in the city’s Hill District, each from a different decade of last century and focusing on different social justice issues.
“We’ve built up an audience here with the readings,” explains Bell. “The first (reading), it was a very sparse audience. People at the talkback afterwards said, This is ridiculous, it needs to be full. They got the word out, and it started to sell. Now it’s standing-room only.”
And now it’s a fully produced play that runs for two weekends. Audience voting, plus advice from the Black Collective of Tacoma and Pierce County, settled on “Joe Turner” as the play of choice to be brought to stage life. Set in 1911, the play focuses on the comings and goings of guests at a Pittsburgh boarding house during the Great Migration of the early 20th century as descendants of slaves move north looking for jobs and new beginnings.
“Wilson does a fantastic job of highlighting different aspects: black mobility, the search for identity, how you go from being a slave to being free,” Bell says. “And danger, because freedom isn’t always free! Each character is imbued with a way of imparting knowledge of those things.”
For Bell, the production is also a personal dream – directing her own version.
“I have a long history with this play,” explains the director and playwright, who has seen several of her own works produced in Tacoma (“1620 Bank St.”, “New Orleans Monologues”). “I did it for the first time with Claude Purdy, who was a very good friend of Wilson’s. He was a genius director, so I learned and learned. Every time we did ‘Joe Turner’ I was blown away by discoveries. What this production has done for me is become it’s own thing…I had to come in with fresh eyes.”
“Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” plays at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 8, 15, 21 and 22; 3 p.m. Feb. 9, 16 and 23. $19/$32. Theatre on the Square, 915 Broadway, Tacoma. 253-591-5894, broadwaycenter.org