Summary and Analysis: Act I, Scenes 1-2
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2034
Bertha Holly: the wife of the boardinghouse owner
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 will not tell Herald where she is because Herald is mean looking. Meanwhile, Mattie Campbell knocks on the door. She is looking for Bynum because she wants him to locate the man who walked out on her and to make him come back to her. As the local, practicing rootworker, Bynum has a gained a reputation for “binding” people to one another, and Mattie seeks his services. Bynum expresses some reluctance about taking the job because, as he explains to Mattie, the song only binds people together who are already clinging to one another. He tells Mattie that the roots are powerful, but perhaps the man Jack Carper and Mattie do not belong together. Instead, he offers her a good-luck charm to sleep on in order to forget about Jack Carper. During this exchange, Jeremy’s interest in Mattie is piqued. He chats with her and invites her to accompany him to the guitar contest. When Mattie hesitates, Jeremy urges her to take a chance on him and on life. Mattie assents and leaves in order to fix herself up for the night out. Then, per the stage directions, the lights go down in the house and come on in the yard, where Zonia is playing and singing a song. The boy next door, Reuben, enters the yard and introduces himself to Zonia. Zonia informs him that she and her father are on the road searching for her mother. From inside the house, Herald can be heard warning Zonia not to wander off. Reuben tells Zonia that her father has mean-looking eyes, and they exit together to go look at the pigeons Reuben keeps.
Scene two opens on a Saturday morning, one week later. Bertha is again at the stove preparing breakfast, and she is chatting with her husband. Seth reiterates his suspicions about Herald, insisting that something isn’t right about that man. He says that he’s seen Herald standing outside the church, just watching it as if he plans to rob it. Seth cannot believe that the good Christian woman he knows, Martha Pentecost, would have anything to do with such a wild-eyed, unkempt man as Herald Loomis. Bynum walks through the kitchen and proceeds upstairs, and as Seth watches him go, he begins to disparage Bynum’s profession as conjure man. Seth refers to Bynum’s rootwork contemptuously as “heebie-jeebie stuff,” and puts down Bynum’s wandering tendencies. Having exhausted this topic, Seth then tells Bertha all that he knows concerning Martha’s whereabouts. After leaving the South, heartbroken over the loss of her daughter, Martha moved with her church to Rankin, a town up the river, where she still lives. However, Seth reiterates that he will not help Herald find Martha, concluding that he doesn’t get mixed up in other people’s business.
Bynum comes back into the kitchen, looking for breakfast. He asks where Herald and Zonia are, and tells Seth and Bertha that Herald plans on asking Selig to help him find Martha. Coincidentally, Selig knocks on the door just then, and immediately begins negotiating with Seth over payment for the dustpans Seth has made. Seth is an efficient and accurate businessman. Just as they are finishing their exchange, Herald enters and begins to talk to Selig. He asks Selig to find his wife, providing a description of Martha as well as the dollar fee. Selig tells Herald that his family has been in the people-finding business for generations. His grandfather used to find and bring slaves over from Africa. His father used to track down runaway slaves for the plantation bosses. After slavery was abolished, and the former slaves started searching for lost relatives or separated spouses, Selig himself went into the people-finding business. He can’t promise Herald that he’ll find Martha, but he agrees to try. After Selig leaves, Bertha tells Herald that he just wasted a dollar.
Imagery of the road and talk of travel and the motives and consequences of migration are frequent in the beginning of this play, thus introducing one of the main themes—that of people losing and finding one another. Herald has lost his wife and is searching for her. Mattie’s man has abandoned her, and she wants him to return. Jeremy desires a relationship, but he seems too young to experience a solid commitment with a woman. Selig is a people finder, and Bynum is a people binder. Seth’s boardinghouse functions as a space where people come together circumstantially, only to leave the boardinghouse and its occupants—permanent and temporary—behind when the time comes. It is worth noting that Seth is identified as the son of a free man. His impatience with and mistrust of the wandering tendencies of Bynum, Jeremy, and Herald likely stem from the stability he enjoyed having grown up in the North. Seth appears unable to relate to the travelers and migrants; he may never have experienced separation from his family. The themes addressed in these first two scenes suggest that one legacy of slavery was the separation of people, the disruption of relationships, and the persistent desire among ex-slaves to find a mate or to be part of a family.
A secondary theme that closely parallels the motif of the road is that of identity loss. Slavery the chain gang, and even migration (forced or voluntary) to some extent, all entail a loss of identity. As Seth points out, the newly freed slaves and their children have lost all memory of Africa, the implied “homeland” and source of cultural identity. The loss of identity and of all memory of the “homeland” results in mobility, in wandering about in search of identity, an occupation, family, and a home. This theme is evoked when Bynum relates the tale of learning his song, a song that no one else has, which was handed down to Bynum by his father, and by which Bynum is named. The "Binding Song" lends Bynum the power to act positively in the world, rather than wander aimlessly and without self-knowledge. It is no coincidence that he obtains his song/identity while wandering down a road and around a bend. For the former slaves, as for the new white immigrants to America, mobility, migration, and the search for identity go hand in hand.
Scene two contains some dramatic irony. We learn that Selig’s grandfather participated in the forced migration of Africans to the new world, and that Selig’s father was employed tracking and capturing runaway slaves in order to return them to the plantations. The theme of migration earlier evoked is amplified here by the reference to Africans being forced—by Selig’s grandfather, among others—to move away from the “homeland,” and then as slaves running away from the harsh and dehumanizing conditions on the plantations. Bertha’s final words in the scene illuminate the irony. She tells Bynum that the reason Rutherford Selig can find people is because he’s the one who takes them away in the first place. When folks want to travel from one part of the region to another, they accompany him, since as a peddler, he is savvy about travel. Bertha states flatly that Selig has never found anyone that he hasn’t first taken away. Thus Bertha implies that Selig is a people finder sort of like his father and grandfather were. His grandfather took Africans away from the continent to the plantations of the American South; his father found and returned runaway slaves to those same plantations. Selig’s father never “found” anyone that his father hadn’t, in some sense, already taken away. Selig, his father, and his grandfather all profited from finding and moving black people from one place to another. Bertha’s comment enables the audience to see that there is little difference between Selig’s, his father’s, and his grandfather’s occupations. By taking people away, Selig causes the loss of kin; subsequently, he profits from “helping” black people find one another again. In short, Selig perpetuates the legacy of slavery—the separation of families and the loss of identity—albeit in different ways than do the whites.