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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Young Vic


  Delroy Lindo/ Ph: Simon Annand

Not long before he died, August Wilson said in an interview, "It’s the question that African Americans must ask: what do you do with your legacy? Can you achieve a sense of self-worth by denying your past? It’s an affirmation of your past; that’s how you achieve a sense of self-worth, by embracing it." Much of his career was dedicated to ensuring that the inequities of black American history retained an imaginative afterlife in order to help this process to happen, but it’s hard not to think of his sentiments explicitly when watching his great play Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. This, with its powerful portrait of the psychic legacy of slavery is on one level a highly poeticised call to arms: Only by confronting history can one understand it, and start to move on.
Of course, it’s more complicated than that. The play is set in Seth Holly’s boarding house, in Pittsburgh 1911, a place of transit that doubles as metaphor for a community adrift, in search of the safety of the cities as they migrate north, and in search of somewhere to fit in. Yet Joe Turner also brilliantly reflects a voiceless black community looking – in the face of the political and emotional inadequacy of everyday language – for a new way with which to redeem their history, a more transcendent form of reconciliation with themselves and with their roots, through music, dance and faith.
This is a play full of buried stories, oblique unease and characters of ambiguous provenance. We learn almost nothing about the implacable Molly (Petra Letang), who arrives at the boarding house dressed to kill and who may or may not be a prostitute, other than "Molly ain’t going South." Bynum, played by an excellent Delroy Lindo, is convinced that black people must find their own "song" if they are ever to find themselves. And Kobna Holdbrook-Smith’s Herald Loomis, emotionally eviscerated by the seven years he spent enslaved to the bounty hunter Joe Turner and now looking for his wife, spends much of the first half shrunk into his overcoat, a haunted, hunted figure whose inarticulate psychological distress alienates Seth (whose father was a freeman) as much as it has clearly divided Loomis from himself.

David Lan’s beautifully scored in-the-round production for the Young Vic fills the floor of the entire theatre with bloodied earth, as though to evoke a visual memory of the cotton plantations, and the dust on the long road walked away from them. Intimate, very human scenes around the dining table are full of raw, affectionate humour and blend beautifully with the play’s more expansive, mystical elements. At one point Seth and Bertha (Adjoa Andoh) lead their guests into a mesmeric hand-clapping juba, a form of ecstatic dance.











The play and production take time to build, arguably too long given that some of the early scenes feel mumbled. Yet among a fine cast, Holdbrook-Smith is spell-binding as Loomis who eventually achieves some form of salvation and whose story of self-discovery becomes the story of a divided country starting, very slowly, to unify itself.






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