Summary and Analysis: Act I, Scenes 1-2

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2034

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Bertha Holly: the wife of the boardinghouse owner

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Seth Holly: the ornery owner of the boardinghouse and a skilled craftsman

Bynum Walker: a rootworker, or conjure man

Rutherford Selig: a white peddler and people finder

Jeremy Furlow: a young man staying at the boardinghouse

Herald Loomis: a former sharecropper and chain gang laborer who is looking for his long-lost wife

Zonia Loomis: the eleven-year-old daughter of Herald Loomis

Mattie Campbell: a lonely young woman looking for stable love

Reuben Scott: the boy who lives next door to the Hollys’ boardinghouse

It is August 1911. In the kitchen of a boardinghouse in Pittsburgh, Bertha Holly prepares breakfast, while Seth Holly, an ornery man in his fifties, stands looking out the window at Bynum Walker, a conjure man. Bynum is engrossed in a traditional African ceremony that involves talking to a pigeon, bleeding it, and then burying it in the yard as a house-blessing rite. After Bynum finishes what Seth refers to as his “mumbo jumbo,” he comes into the kitchen, and he, Seth, and Bertha talk about Jeremy Furlow, a new boardinghouse resident. Jeremy is a young man who has only recently moved North, guitar in hand, looking for work and a new life. Using Jeremy as an example, Seth describes the flood of migrants from the South, white and black, who come to the North looking for freedom and a new way of life. He observes that since slavery ended, black folks continue to come North looking for work with little more than hope. Those migrants who are former slaves from the South must compete with white immigrants from all over the world for jobs; Seth says that this is a rude awakening to these hopeful Southerners.

Rutherford Selig, a peddler, drops by for his weekly visit to exchange news and to do business with Seth: Selig brings the raw materials—squares of sheet metal—out of which Seth makes pots and pans. Seth sells his wares to Selig, who peddles then door to door in the mill towns along the Monongahela River. Selig’s other occupation is that of people finder; that is, he keeps track of folk’s locations as he travels selling his wares and meeting people. For a fee of one dollar, he’ll locate a person for someone else. Bynum has paid Selig a dollar to find the shiny man—a mysterious man he met while walking on the road who had promised to show him the "Secret of Life." Bynum tells Selig the story of the shiny man; the story sounds like a vision or a dream in which Bynum learned his true identity. Bynum describes how the shiny man led him around a bend in the road, where Bynum met his father and acquired his song, the Binding Song. Bynum tells Selig that he derives his name and his identity from his song because he binds people to one another, like glue. Selig tells Bynum he’ll continue looking for the shiny man, and then he leaves.

Jeremy enters the kitchen. He has spent the night in jail, having been harassed by the police for being out on the street late at night and drinking. Even though it seems as if Jeremy was taken to jail unfairly, Seth warns him not to cause any trouble. The boarding house is a respectable establishment, and Seth won’t tolerate any foolishness. At this point, Herald Loomis and his daughter, Zonia, knock on the door, enter, and request room and board. Herald tells everyone that he is looking for his wife, Martha Loomis. Bynum recommends that Herald seek the services of Selig, the people finder, and Seth takes Herald and Zonia upstairs to see the room. Meanwhile, perhaps to keep him out of trouble, Bynum suggests that Jeremy play guitar in a nightly local guitar contest. Seth returns to the kitchen and tells Bynum, Bertha, and Jeremy that he thinks a woman he knows named Martha Pentecost might be Herald’s wife, but that he...

(The entire section contains 2034 words.)

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Summary and Analysis: Act I, Scenes 3-4

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