Joe Turner’s Come and Gone @ Young Vic, London

cast list
Delroy Lindo, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, Danny Sapani, Adjoa Andoh, Nathaniel Martello-White, Demi Oyediran, Petra Letang, Daniel Cerqueira

directed by
David Lan
August Wilson died five years ago, just after completing his monumental ten-play cycle outlining African-American experience in the twentieth century, with each one set in a different decade.

His 1986 play Joe Turners Come and Gone is set in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1911.

This is very much a transitional time, in which many post-slavery black Americans are migrating from the rural south hoping for a new start in life in the industrial north. Danny and Berthas boarding house is a staging post for a diverse group of people, all of whom seem to be in search of something.
Danny himself, a night-shift shop-worker and pot-and-pan maker, wants the money to set up his own business. Bynum, a rootworker, or spiritual healer, is looking for the secret of life ever since an encounter with a shiny man on the highway, while road-builder Jeremy is just interested in playing his guitar and getting laid. But when sombre newcomer Herald arrives with his young daughter on a mission to find his wife, whom he has not seen since a seven-year stint on the infamous plantation owner Joe Turners slave gang, an edge of danger enters the house.

Wilsons richly metaphorical writing gives an almost mythic dimension to the quest of rootless black Americans trying to preserve their cultural identity while finding a new place in the modern world. His mystical symbolism is at its strongest in ritualistic set-pieces such as the post-Sunday-lunch juba-dancing scene, when the households spiritual ecstasy is interrupted by Heralds agonized writhing on the floor, and the cathartic knife-edge climax in which Herald finally confronts his wife.

In the first act, the action moves rather slowly, and sometimes Wilson strains too hard for poetic effect so that the dialogue seems overwrought, but the play still exerts a potent spell on our emotions. In addition, there are some nice moments of comic relief which prevent it from becoming too portentous, especially involving Jeremys roving eye for pretty women whom he tries to impress by hinting at his sexual prowess.

David Lans assured direction gives this intimate in-the-round production a genuinely ensemble quality, and designer Patrick Burniers use of red earth on the stage and around the auditorium reinforces the plays theme of the importance of knowing where you come from as well as where you are going to. Mike Gunnings arc of lights over the stage provides flashes of illumination to match moments of dramatic truth, while Tim Suttons bluesy music sets a suitably rootsy tone.

Delroy Lindo (who played Herald in the original Broadway production in 1988) exudes such impressive charisma as Bynum, a benevolent witch doctor who has a deep understanding of human suffering, that we believe in his healing powers. Kobna Holdbrook-Smith gives Herald a brooding intensity, suggesting a deep anger born of extreme pain which may erupt into violence. Danny Sapani shows that the cantankerous Seth is actually a decent, good-hearted man, while Adjoa Andoh is a sympathetic, generous Bertha.

Nathaniel Martello-White is an amusingly impulsive Jeremy, first keeping company with Demi Oyedirans abandoned wife Mattie, then getting off with Petra Letangs sassily independent Molly. And Daniel Cerqueira does well as Rutherford, a travelling tinker who also has a talent for finding missing people.

With a much higher profile in America, Wilsons rewardingly multi-layered plays deserve to be staged more frequently in this country. Who knows, perhaps one day a company over here will rise to the challenge of staging the Pittsburgh Cycle in its epic entirety.

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