Young Vic Theatre, London SE1
Opened 3 June, 2010

Before he was a director, before even he was a playwright, David Lan was an anthropologist; his book about Zimbabwean spirit mediums is still available on Amazon. It is not wholly fanciful to see this knowledge informing his approach to various aspects of August Wilson’s compelling drama. At the climax of Act One, the inhabitants of the Pittsburgh rooming house where the play is set join in a “Juba”, part-celebration, part-religious ritual; Wilson’s script simply says this “should be as African as possible”, but Lan and choreographer Thea Nerissa Barnes have worked up an electrifying  sequence which potently blends elements of tribalism, Pentecostal ecstasy and “field holler” blues.

Lan also seems to have an intuitive understanding of the play’s concerns with diaspora and the search for identity. Here are people questing, in an almost literal sense, to own themselves. In 1911, even legal slavery was still within living memory, and some experiences closer still: it is a mere three years since Herald Loomis (played by the redoubtable Kobna Holdbrook-Smith) left the service of notorious, semi-mythical slavemaster Joe Turner, subject of the song which gives the play its title. Herald arrives at Seth and Bertha’s house in search of the wife from whom he was sundered, but the elderly herbalist and juju man Bynum realises that the person he really needs to find is himself. Meanwhile, Mattie is trying to find a place for herself with a man (she has just been deserted by one when we first see her, and is abandoned by the feckless Jeremy in the course of the play), Seth to become his own master in business, and Loomis’s daughter Zonia sets a first tentative foot on the uncharted continent that is Boys.

The production boasts a heavyweight cast: in addition to Holdbrook-Smith we see Danny Sapani as Seth, Adjoa Andoh as Bertha, Daniel Cerqueira as “people-finder” Rutherford Selig, and above all Delroy Lindo, whose authoritative performance as Bynum closes a circuit begun when he played Loomis on the piece’s 1988 Broadway debut. All concerned do the play full justice. This is a production that will stay with you for some time afterwards, and not simply because it will take days to eradicate the last of the red earth with which designer Patrick Burnier has covered stage and auditorium floor alike.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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