Wilson prefaces the play’s first scene with a brief note regarding the atmosphere of Pittsburgh in 1911. He notes that all over the city men are working on bridges, roads, and tunnels, and new houses are appearing with great rapidity. “From the deep and the near South the sons and daughters of newly freed African slaves wander into the city,” he writes, going on to call these migrants “isolated” and “cut off from memory.” They arrive in the city feeling as if their hearts are “kicking in their chest[s] with a song worth singing,” and they carry Bibles and guitars with them. They’re characterized by a “fresh hope” and a desire to sculpt “the malleable parts of themselves into a new identity as free men of definite and sincere worth.”
Wilson’s short description of the play’s setting encapsulates the theme of transience that runs throughout the subsequent scenes. The industrialization of travel represented by the bridges, roads, and tunnels that are being installed in the city shows just how widespread migration has become in the years after slavery, when African Americans are traveling northward for the first time. Of course, the effects of this mass migration also bring themselves to bear on the travelers themselves, who find themselves estranged from everything they’ve known in the South, “isolated” and unable to form a sense of continuity between their past lives—as slaves or the children of slaves—and as relatively independent, self-sufficient workers in the North. As such, they’re “cut off from memory” while also trying to shape themselves so that they can assume “new identit[ies] as free men.” Furthermore, Wilson foregrounds the play’s interest in identity and spirituality by referencing the “song worth singing” “kicking in” the chests of the migrants, since the idea that a person has a “song” he or she must identify in order to establish an identity and a sense of spirituality is prominent throughout the play.