June 7, 2010 10:19 pm
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. It is not wholly fanciful to see this knowledge informing his approach to 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 that 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 to own themselves. In 1911, legal slavery was still within living memory, and it is a mere three years since Herald Loomis (played by Kobna Holdbrook-Smith) left the service of notorious, semi-mythical slavemaster Joe Turner, subject of the song that gives the play its title.
Loomis 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 another character, Mattie, is trying to find a place for herself with a man (she has just been deserted by one, and is subsequently abandoned by the feckless Jeremy). Seth is seeking to become his own master in business, while Loomis’s daughter Zonia sets a first 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 only because it will take days to eradicate traces of the red earth with which designer Patrick Burnier has covered stage and auditorium floor. (
Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.