Joe Turner’s Come and Gone isn’t easy viewing. The producers haven’t taken a heavily emotionally piece and happy-clappy-fied it, the way it was done with The Color Purple on Broadway. It’s not filled with bubbling scandal & soap opera-esq turns like Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. What it is, is agonizing; in an intense, existentially challenging sort of way.
Set in the early 20th century, pre-slavery abolition times in Southern America, the play begins with the audience plonked in the middle of a kitchen conversation. Here. Pot Maker Seth, his wife Bertha, and pal Mr Bindham chitter-chatter with the abandonment of refined familiarity. This mid-flow beginning, coupled with an amalgamation of accents (20th century idiom, meets Southern, meets English, meets stage school) makes the conversation difficult to follow initially, causing a staggered connection to these sparkly characters.
The turning (or rather entry) point is when Mr Bynum- a fascinating man with a limp in one leg, gracious smile and obvious penchant for Bertha- begins, almost abruptly delivering the crutch of the storyline, his supernatural experience of meeting the ‘Shiny Man’. In a surreal episode, Bynum once stumbled upon this God-like illuminating man, who taught him the Secret of Life. He tells the stage, excitedly, that this phenomenon allowed him to realise his gift for binding people’s hearts and re-aligning derailed lovers. It’s at this point, that a sense of the magical is infused, transforming the banality of middle-aged, Country living into the probability of fantastical things to come in the plot. Drama on stage can come across overstated and contrived. Fortunately by casting the simply superb Delroy Lindo as Mr Bynum (Bynum. Bindthem. Get it?), the play is injected with a sense of the spectacular. Only a sense, though.
Enter Herlad Loomis, played by the undeniably gifted Kobna Holdbrook-Smith and his sweet, gangly daughter Zonia. The character is plainly troubled (behind a flippantly steely exterior) and in search of his missing wife Martha (not Bertha, Seth’s wife. Keep up). It’s clear that there’s more to this search and his crazed look suggests perhaps he’s a serial killer concealing a pistol within his underpacked suitcase. It is Herald, his quest and the compassion and faith of Mr Bynum that carry the storyline as we watch the Herald Loomis story unfold. There are other parts of the narrative that seem surplus to requirements. Characters who come, deliver witty lines or insight into a wider theme and are gone again in an instance. Characters like Jeremy Furlow, the impulsive, lustful young tenant of Seth & Bertha’s guesthouse, Molly Cunningham, a sexually assertive, pretty gold-digger and cheeky boy next door Reuben.
The character of Mattie Campbell played by the fantastic Demi Oyediran, is a fascinating one. A charmingly meek young woman, who’s only desire it to be loved by a man. “Make him come back”, is the line she hauntingly echoes during her first meeting with Mr Bynum, where she begs that he bind her with her former beau who walked out on her following the death of their children. She’s an understandably desperate woman. One that’s indicative of our human desire to be wanted and accepted wholly. This for me was the prevailing theme of Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. The quest for salvation. This is initially embodied in the play by sexual love. Herald Loomis desperately seeks to be re-united with his wife, and after initial reservations about his intentions, Herald begins to exude a real sense of helplessness and inconsolable angst that’s touching. “Bless”, you think, “he’s just lost without her”. And Mattie, in her quest for true companionship, is tangled in a few relationships with both Jeremy and Herald, because ultimately, she’ll go wherever she feels wanted. “I don’t want to live my life, going from man to man” she says, yet seems to find her self with men who only want her for temporary measures. It’s a cycle that could symbolize the human struggle for enlightenment. The idea that deep down, perhaps we all seek the meaning or ‘secret’ of life, yet fall short of it by continually entertaining vacuous exploits. Meanwhile, Jeremy’s lust for life is epitomized by his fixation with sex. Even Mr Bynum, seems caught up with love, as he attempts to break down with the virtues of women by using a Promised Land-esq trapped at sea allegory.
We later discover that Harold Loomis, is in search of his wife, not for reconciliation of their relationship, but for the sake of closure. He seeks, not to keep, but to solidify their parting. It’s clear that what has driven Herald is a different kind of loss, a void that only finality can close. Literally. History teaches us that the slave period in which Joe Turner’s Come and Gone is set is one where religion factored greatly in the African-American slave experience. ‘Negro Spirituals’ allowed a sense of hope and community, where otherwise there was none. In the play, Mr Bynum often refers to one’s “song”. A euphemism, I believe, for one’s spirit and needing to tap into the very core of your being. While the circumstances that life conjures may knock, hurt or break us, the core must be kept in tact. Each person must find their own “song”, their joy, their peace, a part of themselves that’s still connected to the world. While Herald is the character that’s more overtly ‘broken’, it’s that longing for inward connection that unifies these characters and should in some was play on the hearts on the audience.
It’s fascinating that the play is called Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. Joe Turner was a slave owner that captured men with more melanin (I’m strangely uncomfortable using the word ‘negro’) and kept them for seven years. He is the oppressor. And yet his existence is in past tense- he was. He is no more. And yet Herald Loomis is continually plagued by this past. This lends itself to the motif of redemption and spiritual freedom surrounding this play. Freedom not from any physical being, but by the mental shackles of the past, which all the characters are in some way entrapped by. Joe Turner’s Come and Gone is a truly though provoking, heart wrenching, emotionally taxing play. The performance of the actors at the Young Vic in London, for me at least, was superb. I believed in their characters, with notably tight performances form the mighty Delroy Lindo, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith & Demi Oyediran.
While I’m glad I’ve been introduced to this play, and look to read more of playwright August Wilson’s works, admittedly, I feel the best format for this particular play is text based rather than a stage production. Perhaps it’s the fact that the drama is mostly emotional and that for me always translates better on page. I also think that while some scenes are necessary to build the themes and subtexts around the play, they’re not visually captivating enough. In fact none of it is particularly visual. And so it becomes a little pain-staking to watch, particularly if you don’t connect with the characters and sub-plots. Still, I urge, if you want something that will make you feel, this certainly is it.
Joe Turner’s Come and Gone is on at the Young Vic theatre, London, until 3rd July 2010. More info and tickets here