The second play in August Wilson's The Pittsburg Cycle looks at the psychological inheritance of slavery
“Now I can look at you, Mr Loomis, and see you a man who done forgot his song. Forgot how to sing it. A fellow forget that and he forget who he is.“
In one of those theatrical historical moments at the Young Vic, the magnificent Delroy Lindo plays the mystic herbalist and wise man Bynum in David Lan’s production of Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. In March 1988 when August Wilson’s play was first shown on Broadway, Delroy Lindo played the mysterious travelling but taciturn Southerner, Herald Loomis, who comes to the Pittsburgh Boarding House run by irritable Seth and his wife, kindly Bertha Holly (Daniel Sapani and Adjoa Andoh), in search of Loomis’ wife Martha.
Now, never having seen this second play in August Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle of ten plays, one for each decade of the Twentieth century, I was captivated by the posters of Kobna Holdbrook-Smith in his Homburg hat and grey overcoat looking seriously and intently into the distance, with his young daughter, eyes closed, resting on his shoulder. That image as much as any other conveys the loneliness and searching of Herald Loomis’ life as he escapes seven years’ labour, as a near slave on a Southern cotton plantation run by Joe Turner, to be reunited with his daughter Zonia (Jessica Richardson).
Of course August Wilson’s cycle of plays traces the African American experience from the children born into slavery in Gem of the Ocean to modern day mayoral politics in Radio Golf. The plays were not written in their chronological or historical order but it would be fascinating to see them all staged together. Joe Turner’s Come and Gone is often thought to be more accessible than the others because of its range of interesting characters. Peddlar Rutherford Selig (Daniel Cerqueira) delivers pot making materials to the community and the Boarding house proprietor Seth sells the pots back to him. Selig also is the main communicator when people want to find each other because he is a travelling salesman. In a foresight of the American Dream, Seth envisages employing five men, teaching them to make so many pots and pans that they’d have to open up a store somewhere.
Played in the round, the Young Vic auditorium has been covered in red earth, even up the stairs, where Bynum tends to his plants or offers binding spells. A range is where Bertha cooks the breakfast biscuits and there is a table for communal mealtimes. Bynum gives advice to the lonely and the lovelorn and a young childless woman, sweet natured Mattie (Demi Oyediran) seeks his advice after her man has left. She meets another of the boarding house residents, Jeremy, the seductive guitarist played by the fascinating Nathaniel Martello-White but he isn’t intending to stay long and will take the fashionable Molly (Petra Letang) with him when he leaves. The boarding house is a half way house, both literally and symbolically for people finding a new life or each other. Black men are escaping from the agricultural South to look for factory work in the cities of the North.
It is apparent that Herald Loomis is grappling with more than the search for his wife as he tries to rid himself of the nightmares of his days of forced labour on the cotton plantation. August Wilson’s play has a complex mixture of Christianity and tribal tradition, brought to life in the dance scene, Juba, to a drumming rhythm, in which Harold Loomis has a terrible vision and loses the power of his legs to stand up.
The performances are all good but Delroy Lindo’s inspirational, sympathetic old visionary and healer and Kobna Holdbrook-Smith’s haunted Herald Loomis stand out as mesmerising. David Lan’s intelligent production will make you think about the damage done by those years’ of uprooting and slavery to the psyche of the African American.
Joe Turner’s Come and Gone
Written by August Wilson
Directed by David Lan
Brandon Benoit-Joyce/Tapiwa Mugweni
Director: David Lan
Designer: Patrick Burnier
Costumes: Gabrielle Dalton
Lighting Designer: Mike Gunning
Sound Designer: Gareth Fry
Music: Tim Sutton
Choreographer: Thea Nerissa Barnes
Running Time: Two hours 40 minutes with one interval
Closed at the Young Vic on 3rd July 2010
The Young Vic
London SE1 8LZ
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge at the Young Vic on 3rd June 2010