Saturday 26 June 2010

Thick with humanity

Joe Turner's Come and Gone, Young Vic, London

August Wilson’s play Joe Turner’s Come and Gone belongs to his Pittsburgh cycle, in which Wilson depicted and eviscerated the history of black people in America, setting ten plays in the ten different decades of the 20th century. This one, directed at the Young Vic by its artistic director David Lan, takes place in 1911, with slavery still a tangible memory in the minds of Wilson’s characters, who roam the States looking for their lost loved ones or for mysterious ‘shiny’ men who can reveal to them the truth about life.

Wilson’s beautifully poetic preface to the text would tell you that these characters are, ‘isolated, cut off from memory, having forgotten the names of the gods and only guessing at their faces [...] with their heart kicking in their chest with a song worth singing’, and the vital need for this song (defining your identity, your role in the world, and what you will be to other people) is repeatedly confirmed by one of the protagonists, Bynum, who lives as a guest in the boardinghouse where the whole play is set. Bynum (mastered by Delroy Lindo) knows secrets and rituals and has charms that can attract good luck, and he recognizes people’s stories without having to listen to them, and he is looking for the shiny man who helped him discover his own song, ‘The Binding Song’, which gives him the power to reunite people and stick them together. Yet the play is not about him. Nor is it strictly about the boardinghouse owners, Bertha and Seth, married for twenty-five years and solid, dependable, earthly people. The play, with a perfectly balanced and perfectly off-centre perspective, is about the lost and profoundly desperate Herald Loomis, a man traveling the country with his young daughter Zonia, looking for her mother and his wife who disappeared while he was being held by Joe Turner’s slave gang. At the Young Vic, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith plays Loomis with a straight back and a wild stare, and a tension in his arms which tells us one could be afraid of this man.

Possibly because of its position as part of a cycle, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone feels liberated from any necessity of resolving its characters, or any rush to explain its plot. We don’t actually see Joe Turner, and it doesn’t matter. Many additional characters, each one a hard knot of individuality and with a story to tell that we won’t hear, at least not this time, pass through the boarding house door and onto the stage, moving the red sand of Patrick Burnier’s scorching set - women who have lost or abandoned their lovers, a white ‘people finder’ who sells pots and pans made by Seth, and the young, bothered and hot Jeremy Furlow, often playing the comic relief in Nathaniel Martello-White’s slightly Will Smith-ish interpretation, which on the night I saw the play was a complete success with the two groups of teenagers in the audience.

David Lan’s direction maintains the richness of Wilson’s reticence and control, and counterbalances the long, wordy speeches with strong, visceral and willful movements and gestures - Bertha’s caresses and embraces to Seth, Herald’s under-the-skin violence in cutting some yams on a tin plate. Almost as a sum of this esoteric passion, at the very centre of the evening the characters are united in a wild Juba, a call-and-response dance of stomping and clapping and invoking the Holy Ghost which is the set-up for an even more frantic, more ecstatic and spiritual climax in which Herald reveals his vision. If there is any redemption to this undercurrent of animalistic fear and horror (the ‘people finder’ lets it drop very casually that until a few years earlier, the people he’d be paid to find would be slaves who had escaped their owners, and the scars on Herald’s chest signify a long history of violence), it is a human one, fought for and gained with tooth and nail.

Wilson’s text, if perhaps slightly self-indulgent at points, is also fierce and relentless, and the Young Vic production clearly has a great respect for its in-built lyricism, on the verge of ritual and symbol but still firmly rooted in the ground; this, combined with the generous performances, makes for a very affecting evening, thick with humanity.

Till 3 July 2010


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