As part of his great project to tell the 20th century history of black Americans on the stage, August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone is a key document, and one of his finest plays in the remarkable sequence.
David Lan’s Young Vic production is a fearless mix of the everyday pain and spiritual aspiration in a 1911 Pittsburgh boarding house where the residents have to pay their rent up front and join in the songs of their past as conjured by Bynum, the gardener and black consciousness-raiser.
This idea of digging for roots is extended in Patrick Burnier’s design in the red earth covering the floor of the stage and the seating area, too, as the house is a destination for black slaves and workers coming up from the south in search of freedom.
The latest of these to arrive, after serving seven years on Joe Turner’s notorious slave gang - Turner was a real-life racist brother of the governor of Tennessee - is Herald Loomis, whom the brilliant Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, a star in the recent Tricycle black theatre season, plays as a parched obsessive in search of his vanished wife, with a docile daughter in tow.
Bynum is played by the hypnotically powerful American actor Delroy Lindo, who played Herald on Broadway over twenty years ago. He becomes the conduit and catalyst in the psychological action, which remains tethered in everyday rituals of meal times and recreation, with a young boy working on the bridge (Nathaniel Martello-White) pairing off, or trying to, with a new arrival in pink silks who likes “company” (Petra Letang).
Lan’s production is more ambitious but less comprehensible than the Tricycle premiere in 1990, but there’s a fine combustion of voodoo and Holy Ghost evocation, and the household is convincingly supervised by Danny Sapani’s furrow-browed pot and can maker and Adjoa Andoh as his compassionate wife, assuring Herald’s daughter - neatly played by Leah Ocran - that she has her time coming.
There’s a rip-roaring, violent climax and, judging by the audience’s response, there are buttons pressed on the black experience here, which cannot be as rich and diverse as the American story, flashing by not only in the various anecdotal testaments and recollections of the characters, but in the blues soundtrack and slick lighting design of Mike Gunning.