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Q&A With Chuck Smith

Joe Turner’s Come and Gone is on sale now! 


By Ireon Roach

DIRECTOR CHUCK SMITH discusses Joe Turner’s Come and Gone in conversation with Ireon Roach, winner of the 2016 National August Wilson Monologue Competition. With this being the fourth August Wilson play he’ll direct at the Goodman, the Resident Director gives insight to the theater’s standing legacy with August Wilson and vision for the future. 

IREON ROACH: You know, I’ve actually seen your 2016 production of Two Trains Running, and understand you to have brought a number of August Wilson’s plays to life here at the Goodman. Is this by coincidence or calculation? What is your connection to this work and more specifically, what pulls you to Goodman stages?

CHUCK: I would say it first began more by coincidence. In 1986 Goodman Theatre had an opening in the season for a production and August’s team had Fences just sitting around waiting for a Broadway run. So they asked if they could bring Fences to the Goodman and the artistic and executive teams said, “Yeah, by all means!” That started the relationship between August Wilson and Goodman Theatre. From that point we had a really great relationship. As a result, the Goodman was the very first theater in the country to produce all ten plays in the August Wilson Century Cycle. In that original run of 10, I only directed one: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom in 1997. August Wilson actually came to our very first preview of that show and really worked with me firsthand in polishing it up to be a first class show.

IREON: What a legacy to find yourself at the ground level! That’s pretty special.

CHUCK: Yes, and the Goodman is committed now–since we’ve already done all ten of the plays – to now doing them in the chronological order of the cycle. We started with Gem of the Ocean which takes place in 1904 and now [Joe Turner’s Come and Gone] takes place in 1911.

IREON: You beat me to the coveted creative’s question: Why today? This is the next play in the cycle so that answers the question practically, but why now? What does Joe Turner’s Come and Gone say to a 2024 audience?

CHUCK: It says that more than anything we must look after our children. There are children in Joe Turner and they represent the new way. We must take very delicate care of our children and do whatever we can, as best we can, to provide them a better future.

IREON: Because by doing that, we in turn take care of our futures – futures we might not even have the sight for yet ourselves.

CHUCK: Exactly.

IREON: This season is held together by the thread of “Remixed Reality,” where each production grapples with “the mess and magic of us all.” How do you see this play fitting into that narrative?

CHUCK: There’s a lot of mysticism in the play. There’s a beautiful character in this play by the name of Bynum who speaks of… Africans coming across the water and those who didn’t make it. Aunt Ester, in Gem of the Ocean, speaks of the City of Bones and then Bynum talks about the bones coming out of the water. August Wilson was a poet – he’s always had that mysticism.

IREON: Yet August’s contemporary and friend, Romulus Linney, writes about this play being one of August’s favorites because of its humanism and simplicity compared to the rest of the cycle.

CHUCK: It’s the idea that a place such as Seth Holly’s boarding house is attracting all these different kinds of people in the midst of this industrial revolution. Our hero in the play goes on this journey to find his wife with his kid. He says, “I can’t move on until I get this thing straightened out. My life is in limbo until this is straightened out.” Knowing August, I could see why this is one of his favorite plays.

IREON: So we’ll see more of a springboard, so to speak; a landing place for these people to come, go, and begin to build something new. Can you talk to me a bit about the cast? What were you looking for in a cast for this play? What kind of alchemy do you need in the rehearsal room?

CHUCK: Our cast is an all local cast, all Chicagoans. Quite a few of the cast members I’ve worked with before. These people are all familiar with August Wilson’s language. They’re seasoned veterans and very fine performers who know Chicago theater and what it’s all about. They know what August Wilson is all about.

Ireon Roach is a Chicago-bred writer, performer, curator and teaching artist.