Seth Holly, the owner of a Pittsburgh boardinghouse, in his early fifties. A skilled craftsman born to northern free parents, he supplements income from his boarders with money made from making pots and pans, and he hopes to start his own business soon. On Sunday nights, he plays host to a Juba, a call-and-response dance reminiscent of the ring shouts of African slaves.
Bertha Holly, Seth’s wife for twenty-seven years, five years younger than he is. A kind, warm-spirited woman who cares for her boarders, she professes a faith in the healing powers of love and laughter.
Herald Loomis, a thirty-two-year-old searching for his long-lost wife, Martha. He comes to live at the boardinghouse. Dressed in a hat and a long wool coat, he has been roaming the countryside for four years with his daughter, hoping that contact with Martha will somehow bring him peace. A former deacon at the Abundant Life Church in Memphis, he was abducted and forced to work on a chain gang controlled by Joe Turner, the brother of the Tennessee governor, in 1901. His servitude, which lasted seven years, left him deeply anguished. Having worried Seth with his moodiness, Herald is told to leave the boardinghouse after he has a fit during a Juba. When he finally is reunited with Martha, he delivers their child to her, becoming increasingly agitated and bitterly expressing his lack of faith in Christianity. Slashing himself in the chest frees him from the trauma of his years of bondage and solitude and enables him to leave the boardinghouse a healthier man.
Martha Loomis Pentecost
Martha Loomis Pentecost, Herald’s twenty-eight-year-old wife. Five years after Herald was captured by Joe Turner and she was forced to leave their home, Martha gave up on him and traveled with her Evangelist church group to the North, leaving their child with her mother. She lived in Pittsburgh for three years before moving to Rankin with her church. Glad to be reunited with her daughter but alarmed by Herald’s behavior, she tries to persuade him to renew his faith in Jesus Christ.
Bynum Walker, a short, round man in his early sixties. He is a root worker or conjurer who performs pigeon-slaying rituals and supplies boardinghouse tenants with advice and charms. Exuding an air of wisdom and peacefulness, he consoles others with his insights into human nature. Confident that his “binding song” can bring people together, he himself seeks a mysterious “shiny man . . . One Who Goes Before and Shows the Way” whom he once encountered during his wanderings. Able to divine that Herald once labored for Joe Turner, Bynum notes that Herald himself is shining as he leaves the boardinghouse.
Mattie Campbell, a twenty-six-year-old engaged in an honest search for love and companionship. Abandoned by Jack Carper after their two babies die, she hopes that he will someday return to her. Born in Georgia and reared in Texas, she moves in with Jeremy Furlow. After his departure, she seems attracted to Herald and pursues him after he leaves the boardinghouse.
Jeremy Furlow, a boardinghouse resident. He is twenty-five years old, confident, and carefree. He is forced to leave his job as a road builder when he refuses to pay off a white extortionist. A proficient guitarist from North Carolina, he also earns money in local music competitions. After inviting Mattie Campbell to live with him, he becomes attracted to Molly Cunningham and leaves with her to see the world.
Molly Cunningham, about twenty-six years old, a tough and independent...
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resident who does not love or trust others easily. She first appears wearing a fashionably colorful dress and carrying a small cardboard suitcase.
Rutherford Selig, a peddler. He sells wares made by Seth to mill town residents. Roughly as old as Seth, the thin, white-skinned man is also called the People Finder because his customer lists enable him to locate individuals who have traveled from one town to another; apparently, Selig also has a hand in transporting many of them away. Bynum hires him to find the “shiny man,” Mattie hires him to find Jack Carper, and Herald hires him to find Martha. Once married to a woman in Kentucky, Selig mentions that his grandfather shipped blacks from Africa and that his father helped capture runaway slaves.
Zonia Loomis, Herald and Martha’s eleven-year-old daughter, who befriends Reuben Scott.
Reuben Scott, a boy who lives next door and sells pigeons to Bynum.
Mattie Campbell Mattie Campbell is one of Seth’s tenants, who wants nothing more than to get married and have children, and who chases Herald at the end of the play. When she first comes to Seth’s boardinghouse, Mattie, a twenty-six-year-old woman, is seeking out Bynum’s help. She is hoping the conjurer can bind her old boyfriend, Jack Carper, to her so that he will not leave again. Mattie had two babies with Carper, but they both died, and he thinks she is cursed. However, Bynum says that she and Carper are not meant to be together. Although Mattie is desperate and ends up living with Jeremy, he leaves her, too. At the end of the play, Mattie realizes that she and Herald would make a good match and rushes to catch up with him when he leaves.
Molly Cunningham Molly is one of Seth’s tenants, who desires nothing more than to be independent, and who ends up with Jeremy. Molly, an extremely attractive twenty-six-year-old woman, comes to see Seth about a room when she misses her train. Jeremy, who immediately falls in love with her, eventually asks if she will accompany him on the road. She is hesitant at first, but does agree as long as he does not expect her to work, does not try to buy her, and does not take her south.
Jeremy Furlow Jeremy Furlow is one of Seth’s tenants, who ends up with Molly. Jeremy is a young, impulsive man in his twenties who does not want to be tied down to a needy woman or a place. Jeremy is illegally held in jail by the local police when they are on the lookout for stray black men from whom to extort money. Although he works on a road crew for a while, Jeremy gets fired when he refuses to pay an employment fee to one of the white men. He would rather earn money by gambling and playing his guitar in contests. Although he stays with Mattie for a little while, Molly attracts him, and he ends up leaving Mattie to travel around the country with Molly.
Bertha Holly Bertha Holly is Seth’s wife, who offers advice to many of the tenants at their Pittsburgh boardinghouse. Bertha has been married to Seth for twenty-seven years and has learned to deal with her husband’s prickly nature. While Seth is extremely critical of many people, Bertha generally gives people the benefit of the doubt. Bertha is in charge of the cooking and cleaning at the boardinghouse, while Seth collects the rent and works two side jobs. Although Bertha is a Christian woman, she also performs other rituals. Although the play does not indicate whether Bertha and Seth have any children, she does adopt a maternal role for many of her tenants. For example, when Jeremy leaves Mattie to run away with Molly, Bertha tells Mattie that she is better off without him. When Herald leaves the boardinghouse and is nice to Mattie in the process, it is Bertha who implies that Mattie and Herald might make a good match.
Seth Holly Seth Holly is Bertha’s husband and the owner of the Pittsburgh boardinghouse where the play is set. Unlike his open-minded wife, Seth is a suspicious man and is constantly on the lookout for anything that could make his boardinghouse seem less than respectable. When he hears that Jeremy has been arrested for drinking, he is quick to confront him. When Herald causes a disturbance during a Sunday night juba dance, Seth threatens to throw him out the next morning. Seth was born a free black man and cannot understand and does not sympathize with the many Southern blacks who have wandered up to the American North following the abolition of slavery. Seth inherited the boardinghouse from his father, who also taught Seth how to be a tinsmith. In addition to his night job at a steel mill, Seth buys sheet metal from Selig, a white peddler, and then makes items out of the metal, selling them back to Selig. Since Selig provides the materials and sells the items, he makes a bigger profit than Seth does. Seth knows this and would like to go into business for himself, but nobody will give him a loan unless he signs over his boardinghouse. As the boardinghouse is his only security, Seth refuses to do this.
Seth is initially suspicious of Bynum, the African rootworker, who kills pigeons in Seth’s yard for his African rituals. Seth notes that Bynum is like many other Southern blacks who wander on the road most of their life before finally settling down like Bynum has. As much as he does not understand or accept Bynum’s conjuring, however, when Herald first arrives at the boardinghouse, Seth likes him even less. Although Seth knows Martha Pentecost, Herald’s wife, he chooses not to tell Herald where Martha is because he does not believe that Herald could be married to a respectable woman like Martha. At one point, Seth thinks that Herald might be a church thief since somebody spots Seth hanging around an old church but refusing to go inside. While Seth keeps tabs on Herald, he tells Bertha that he does not like to get involved in other people’s business and so will not tell Martha where Herald is, even though he knows that Martha is looking for Zonia. Even after Herald and his daughter have left and are standing on the street corner, Seth keeps a suspicious eye on him.
Herald Loomis Herald Loomis is a former deacon who was illegally enslaved by Joe Turner, an experience that made him lose his song or identity. One day, Herald tried to stop some black men from gambling, and all of the men, including him, were illegally snatched up by Joe Turner, the brother of the Tennessee governor, to work on his plantation for seven years. When Herald was released, he went to his mother-in- law’s house, where he found his daughter, Zonia, but not his wife, Martha. Herald and Zonia walked north for four years, searching for Martha. At Seth’s boardinghouse, he hires Selig to find Martha. In the meantime, however, Herald, who is noticeably angry, causes a major disturbance in the boardinghouse. When all of the tenants are performing a juba—an African-style song and dance that invokes the name of the Holy Ghost—Herald tries to mock it by unzipping his pants while speaking in tongues. However, this act inspires Herald to have a vision, in which he imagines that he is looking back on his African ancestors who were transported to America, where they were forced into slavery. Bynum guides Herald through the vision.
Seth threatens to kick Herald out for causing the disturbance, but Herald stands his ground. When Bynum sings the song, ‘‘Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,’’ Herald opens up about his slave experience. Herald does not understand why Joe Turner would want him until Bynum says that Turner wanted to steal Herald’s song and make it his own. Because of this, Herald has subconsciously forgotten his song. Herald shows interest in Mattie but realizes that he has forgotten how to touch—another consequence of his captivity. When Selig brings Martha to the boardinghouse, she and Herald reunite. They swap their stories, and then Herald passes Zonia on to Martha. Although Martha encourages Herald to look to Jesus Christ and the blood of the lamb for salvation, Herald uses a knife to slash his chest and draw his own blood, which he wipes on his face. He realizes that with this act of self-reliance, he is free and leaves to start his life over. Mattie rushes after him.
Martha Loomis Martha Loomis is Herald’s wife, who has been separated from him for eleven years since Herald was illegally enslaved by Joe Turner. When Herald was captured, Martha was unable to work their Tennessee farm by herself and was evicted by their landlord. After she and Zonia lived at Martha’s mother’s house for five years, Martha assumed that Herald was dead and moved on with her life. Martha moves North to avoid racial persecution and leaves Zonia behind at her mother’s house, intending to pick her up in a few months. However, Herald is released while Martha is up North, and Herald goes to pick up Zonia. Herald and Zonia search for Martha while Martha searches for Zonia. Martha stays at Seth’s boardinghouse briefly, where Bynum binds Zonia to Martha so that they can find each other someday. By the time Martha and Herald reunite, her name has changed to Martha Pentecost. She has also gotten more involved in religion and tries unsuccessfully to convince Herald to look to Jesus Christ for his salvation. At the end of the play, Zonia goes to live with Martha.
Zonia Loomis Zonia Loomis is the daughter of Herald and Martha, who has been traveling with her father in search of Martha for four years. Zonia helps Bertha in the kitchen to help pay for her board. Zonia meets Reuben, the boy next door, and agrees to be his girl. At the end of the play, Bynum reveals that when he first met Martha, he bound Zonia to her so that Martha would eventually find her daughter. Zonia reluctantly leaves Herald to go with Martha in the end.
Martha Pentecost See Martha Loomis
Reuben Scott Reuben Scott is the boy next door who befriends Zonia and tells her he will marry her someday. Reuben used to have a friend named Eugene, who died. Reuben keeps Eugene’s pigeons in captivity, selling them to Bynum to use in his rituals. However, after a ghost appears and tells Reuben to honor Eugene’s wish, Reuben lets them go.
Rutherford Selig Rutherford Selig is a white peddler and people finder who finds Martha Loomis and brings her to Herald. Selig is the only white character in the play. He stops by the boardinghouse every Saturday to sell sheet metal to Seth and put in orders for the items that he needs made out of the metal. Since Selig makes a profit on both the sheet metal and the items that he buys from Seth, he makes more money than Seth does. In addition to his peddling, Selig is a people finder, who charges one dollar to find somebody. As he lets the others know, his family has been finding people for a long time, first as slave transporters, then as slave bounty hunters, and now, after the slaves have been freed, as a lost-person service—helping reunite families. Selig writes down the names of every one of his customers, and he cross-references this list when he is hired to search for a specific person. However, Bertha believes that Selig can only ‘‘find’’ people who have previously hitched a ride on his peddling cart. Despite this fact, Herald is confident that Selig will find his wife, Martha, and Selig does.
Bynum Walker Bynum Walker, an older resident of the boardinghouse, is an African rootworker, a conjurer who has the power of the Binding Song, which he uses to bind Zonia to her mother, Martha. Bynum received his binding power as the result of a vision he had on the road when he used to travel. A strange man came up to him and offered to show Bynum the Secret of Life. During Bynum’s vision, the strange man began to shine. Bynum’s father appeared as a guide, telling him that if he ever saw a shiny man again, he would know that his song has been accepted. When Bynum came out of his vision, he had the power of the Binding Song and was able to bind people together so that if they became separated they would be able to find each other. This is how he has gotten the name Bynum, which sounds like ‘‘bind ’em.’’ Ever since he had this vision, Bynum has been searching for another shiny man, and he pays Selig, the people finder, to try to find his shiny man for him.
Like Bertha, Bynum helps provide advice to various tenants. He advises Mattie to move on from her old boyfriend and gives her a good luck charm. He tries to counsel Jeremy on the many virtues of women, but Jeremy ignores his advice and runs off with Molly. Bynum also acts as a spiritual guide to Herald. When Herald has a vision of his African ancestors during a juba dance, Bynum helps guide Herald through it. Also, when Herald reacts badly to Bynum’s singing of the song, ‘‘Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,’’ Bynum realizes that Herald has been enslaved by this notorious man. Bynum gets Herald to tell his story and tells Herald that Joe Turner captured Herald because he was trying to steal his song—his identity. However, Bynum lets Herald know that when Herald was captured, he forgot his song so that Turner could not steal it. Bynum is the one who lets Herald know that he is bound to his song and that he only needs to sing it to be free. At the end of the play after Herald has slashed himself and found his identity again, Bynum tells Herald that he is shining. Bynum has found another shiny man.