Chronicling the heritage and experience of African-Americans in the 20th century one decade at a time, August Wilson’s bibliography is rich in political and emotional substance. Joe Turner’s Come And Gone takes on the 1910s with fierce emotion, delivering a powerful punch and offering an insight into the ramifications of slavery.
Set in a boarding house in the hot, dusty state of Pittsburgh, lost souls and lonely wanderers find a temporary family – sometimes unified, mostly dysfunctional, as all the best dramatised families are – care of the short tempered Seth Holly and his relentlessly kind wife Bertha.
Established residents include the young, flirtatious Jeremy (Nathaniel Martello-White) – who proves that age-old adage that a man with a guitar is always more attractive than one without – and the almost otherworldly Bynum (Delroy Lindo). Of the new arrivals, the heartbreakingly vulnerable Mattie (Demi Oyediran) and her counterpart, the hardened Molly (Petra Letang), pass through on their own journeys, looking for something that doesn’t want to be found.
At the centre of the story lies the arrival of Herald Loomis and his young daughter Zonia. Released after seven long years from Joe Turner’s slave gang, Herald is a clear representation of all the men and women snatched from their everyday lives and families into the cold hands of men wanting to kidnap them into an unthinkable life of slavery. Now left with nothing, Loomis’s mind is dedicated solely to finding the wife who was left behind, the sight of her face representing the beginning of his life once again.
Having transferred from an award-winning run on Broadway, Lindo effortlessly reprises the role of the mystical Bynum. His subtle mannerisms and spiritual aura are utterly captivating. His ability to bind people together and his eternal search for the ‘shiny man’ culminate in a breathtakingly moving scene with the deeply damaged Loomis, played by the imposing, heavy-eyed Kobna Holdbrook-Smith.
Wilson’s play is a devastatingly moving, funny and heartbreaking social snapshot of a time when freedom and repression went hand in hand. Each person is seeking their voice, the essence of themselves that has been brutally ripped from them in a world where the oppressors rule.
In this staging at the Young Vic, the audience is transported from Waterloo to hot, sweaty, claustrophobic Pittsburgh in the time it takes to walk over the red dust covering the venue’s floor and hear the first bar of harmonica and slide guitar blues.