It's the second installment of his decade-by-decade chronicle, often called the Pittsburgh Cycle, of the African-American experience. Set in the year 1911 in a boarding house in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, it deals with a time in American history when the sons and daughters of recently freed slaves journeyed to the booming industrial cities of the North in search of prosperity, a new way of life, and, essentially, their own identities.
In the opening stage direction, Wilson says, "They arrive carrying Bibles and guitars, their pockets lined with dust and fresh hope, marked men and women seeking to scrape from the narrow, crooked cobbles and the fiery blasts of the coke furnace a way of bludgeoning and shaping the malleable parts of themselves into a new identity as free men of definite and sincere worth."
Enter Herald Loomis, the play's protagonist. Herald is a tall man of thirty-two, wearing a full-length wool coat and a hat, who occasionally becomes possessed by unseen forces. Recently released from seven years of forced labor on Joe Turner's chain gang, he is searching for his wife, Martha, but more importantly, his place in the world. Loomis struggles to function normally and draws the suspicion of the owner of the boardinghouse, Seth Holly. Searching for "a world that speaks to something about himself," Loomis is determined to deliver to Martha his eleven year-old daughter, Zonia.
Angela Bassett played MarthaThe play deals with a number of issues, including the unseen scars of slavery, the differences between religion and spirituality, and the struggles of beginning a new life, and all of these themes connect to the importance for African Americans of finding and understanding their African roots.
It opened on Broadway on March 27, 1988 at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre and ran for 105 performances. Directed by Lloyd Richards, the cast included Delroy Lindo as Herald Loomis and television and movie star Angela Bassett as Loomis's wife, Martha. The play was nominated for the 1988 Tony Award- Best Play, among other nominations.