Among the pleasures of seeing an August Wilson play, it's often said, is just listening to the people talk.
As Los Angeles Times theater critic Charles McNulty has noted, Wilson stocks his scripts with "natural raconteurs" and lets them soar in "verbal arias" full of earthy poetry.
In that sense, a recent dinner break interview with Keith David, John Douglas Thompson and Glynn Turman was more or less an extension of what they'd been doing in rehearsals for the Mark Taper Forum's revival of "Joe Turner's Come and Gone."
The drama, which premiered in 1986 and arrived on Broadway two years later, was the fourth installment in the 10-play Wilson cycle that explores the African American experience in each decade of the 20th century.
All but one, "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," is set in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, where he grew up. The 10th, "Radio Golf," was playing at the Taper in 2005 as Wilson made final revisions before dying of liver cancer at age 60 two weeks after it closed.
Over takeout pizza and sandwiches, the raconteurial spirit carried over into the "Joe Turner" costars' own stories. Even though this is only the second Wilson play for David and Turman and Thompson's first, the playwright's gravitational pull, or that of his crucial ally, director Lloyd Richards, has been strong for all of them.
David plays Seth Holly, a cranky boardinghouse owner and avid backyard entrepreneur who has no patience for Thompson's character, Herald Loomis, a devastated victim of brutal racist exploitation in early-1900s Tennessee.
Loomis turns up at Holly's boardinghouse in 1911, having spent seven years enslaved by Joe Turner — an unseen historical figure who, as the governor's brother, enjoyed impunity while dragooning presumably free blacks into forced labor. Turman plays Holly's longtime boarder and polar opposite, Bynum, a spiritual healer who performs folk-magic rites and tries to help Loomis.
A radiant, hard-earned theme of "Joe Turner's Come and Gone" is that a sustaining force is alive in the world for each of us, and it's possible to bind oneself to it — to find one's "song," as Wilson puts it — instead of staying chained to suffering. Without deliberately trying to, the middle-aged costars told stories about themselves that illustrated a slice of what Wilson says about the importance of finding, or not forgetting, your song.
David and Turman are L.A.-based Emmy Award winners. As a television narrator, David's elegant basso profundo has stitched the fabric of several Ken Burns documentaries, including "Jazz," and, in his Emmy-winning performances, "The War" and "Unforgiven Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson."
The bearded Turman had a recurring part in "The Wire" as Baltimore's mayor. He won his Emmy in 2008 for a guest-starring role in another HBO series, "In Treatment."
Thompson, who lives in Brooklyn, collected a 2009 Obie Award playing Othello; around that time he was the subject of a New Yorker profile in which Columbia University Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro described him as "the best American actor in Shakespeare, hands down."
A crucial moment for Wilson came when he dropped out of high school over a teacher's allegation that he couldn't have submitted a brilliant essay unless it was plagiarized. Around the same time, Turman was helping to write an important chapter in the history of American theater and African American life.
One day in 1958, not long after they'd moved from Harlem to New York's Greenwich Village, Turman's mother told him that her friend who lived down the street, "the pretty lady with the Collie dog," had written a play that needed a 12-year-old boy such as himself.
Reluctantly tearing himself away from baseball, Turman accepted Lorraine Hansberry's invitation and stepped into the role of Travis Younger. The play was "A Raisin in the Sun," and his stage parents were Sidney Poitier and Ruby Dee; Turman says he doesn't know whether his stage grandma, Lena Younger, played by Claudia McNeil, was named after his mom, Lena McCaulla.
Turman spent a year with the show, first on the road, then on Broadway, and continued acting in other plays. But his mother died while he was in his teens, and he thinks he might have drifted away from acting if a shop teacher who'd seen him in "Raisin" hadn't urged him to apply to the now-legendary High School of Performing Arts.