LONDON—Joe Turner's Come and Gone has a new home at the Young Vic, one of the United Kingdom's premier theater venues, known for its diverse productions. The London revival has been received enthusiastically here, from the audience, who greeted its opening with deafening applause, to theater critics. The Guardian said that the play ''takes time setting off on its journey, but reaches its destination in triumph,'' while the Daily Telegraph enthused, ''by turns tender, tough and deeply affecting, this is a play, and a production of great distinction.''
''In the U.S., his plays are done widely, a great deal in New York and other parts of the country. In [the U.K.], his plays are not done often and I'm hoping to change that,'' says David Lan, the play's director, explaining his reasons for reviving one of August Wilson's best-known plays. Lan is a South African-born, British playwright and filmmaker, and the Young Vic's artistic director. He also directed Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in The Sun in 2001. Joe Turner's Come and Gone is the third in a series of historical plays produced by the Young Vic chronicling the lives of 20th-century African Americans.
Set in the round, the Young Vic has been transformed into a boarding house where Wilson's characters come and go at will. The theater is filled with red earth, symbolic of the rural roots of Wilson's characters and their journey from the South to the North on their quest for identity. In all of this, it is impossible to ignore the presence of Delroy Lindo, who played the role of Herald Loomis in the original 1988 production of the same play. However, Lindo now takes on the character of Bynum Walker.
The Root: Why is it important for theater to revisit groundbreaking plays like August Wilson's Joe Turner's Come and Gone?
Delroy Lindo: This is a play I consider to be a contemporary classic. In that sense, I feel the play is timeless and the deep issues that the play is dealing with, namely, identity, specifically for people of African descent. But I think anybody who has negotiated the question of identity and where they belong on this planet can relate to this play. So, from that standpoint, I believe that the issues are timeless and therefore, it makes the play timeless and relevant to revisit.
TR: You directed the same play at the end of 2008 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, and Fences is currently on Broadway. Is it a coincidence that you have two plays from a great playwright, playing on opposite sides of the Atlantic at the same time?
DL: It's coincidence, actually. However, I think that it does speak to and attest to August's international influence. I actually have no idea how many of his plays have been translated into other languages but he does have, because his work is so specific, a universal quality. I like to think that he has a universal appeal, and I like to think the fact that his plays are being done concurrently in New York and London is a testament to his influence.
TR: You talked about the issue of identity, which of course, relates to Africans, Africans Americans, but here in London, there is a vast difference between the interpretation of slavery and the way it is viewed in the United States. What questions do you hope this play raises with the audience?
DL: [For] people of the African Diaspora and African descent, to the extent that this play deals with identity, who are we on this planet and where do we fit? How do we find ourselves? I think that is a question that people of African descent can ask themselves wherever they may be because people of African descent have literally spread all over the globe. So, whether or not black people have been forcefully taken from their countries of origin or whether they have arrived through some other means, now when I say through some other means, I am not sure, who those black people are. To that extent, I think the issues in this play are always relevant and current.
TR: Is this your first time on the British theater stage?
TR: How have your African-American experience and the fact that you were born in the United Kingdom to Jamaican parents influenced your approach to this production?
DL: That is an interesting question, to the extent that I feel this play is very deeply rooted in the African-American experience. However, I still feel as somebody born here, when I come back, I have always felt acutely aware that black people here in England still have significant questions of identity and belonging that affects them. Now, were you to ask a black British person, who lives here, they may tell you, ''No, that is not the case.'' But for me as an outsider, coming back and looking at it, it feels to me that it is very much still the case. So, I am not sure to what extent at that fact, it influences how I approach the work but I am aware that the questions that the play raises are very, very, relevant to black people in this country. Whether they are aware of it or not, whether they accept it or not, whether they receive it or not as such, it is something I am aware of in terms of my perspective as somebody who having been born here many years ago, left and I now come back somewhat as an outsider.
TR: You play a different role in this London production to the one you took on in the United States back in 1988, when the play first opened. Why did you want to come back to it, and do you ever get tired of the play?
DL: Originally I played the role of Harold Loomis, which influenced me personally and my career a great deal. Even though Harold Loomis is the protagonist of this play, the part of Bynum is one of the great parts in theater. So from a creative standpoint, I welcomed the opportunity to tackle the part and because I love this play so much, and I have such strong feelings for this play, and the opportunity of coming here, in England to do this play, appeals to me creatively and culturally.
TR: What emotions do you want the play to evoke in the audience?
DL: I hope that people connect emotionally with this play and perhaps that is obvious and elementary thing for me to say. But this is a play that the audience has to work at being involved with. It is a complex piece of work. The audience has to listen, and they actively have to be involved, and I hope the audience are up for doing that for meeting the play on its terms and involving themselves with the play. If they are able to do that, I hope that they will appreciate it, be moved and be touched at the same time.
TR: And if there was one significant thing that any one individual could take away from this play, what would it be?
DL: For black people, certainly, I would say, to recognize that our gifts and our ability to do for ourselves and to stand on our own feet and do for yourself. For other people coming to the play, I would say that I hope they take from the play, that we are all God's children and as such have been given and imbued with our own gifts and talent, and strengths.
Belinda Otas is a freelance journalist based in London. Follow her on Twitter.