The Play (Masterplots II: African American Literature, Revised Edition)
Many of the characters in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone are searching for something. This motif thus provides an important organizing principle for a play that does not aspire to tightness of structure. The story the play tells finds its center, however, in Herald Loomis’s search for Martha, the wife he has not seen in ten years. This search brings Loomis, with his eleven-year-old daughter Zonia, in the fall of 1911 to the boardinghouse in Pittsburgh owned by Seth Holly and his wife Bertha.
Bynum Walker, one of the two boarders in residence, tells Loomis that the man to see if he wants to find his wife is Rutherford Selig, a peddler known as the “People Finder.” Loomis has just missed Selig, but he will be back next Saturday. Loomis resolves to wait.
Bynum himself has asked Selig to find someone Bynum calls the “shiny man,” whom Bynum met only once, years before. The shiny man, as Bynum’s father explained to him, is the “One Who Goes Before and Shows the Way.” It was Bynum’s father who showed Bynum how to “find his song”; according to Bynum’s father, if Bynum ever sees a shiny man again, he will know that his song has been accepted and that he has made a mark on life. Bynum’s song is the Binding Song. Like glue, he sticks people together—but, he knows, “You can’t bind what don’t cling.”
Mattie, a woman in her twenties, comes to Bynum for help. Her man, Jack Carper, has walked out on her,...
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The Play (Masterplots II: Drama, Revised Edition)
Joe Turner’s Come and Gone opens on a Saturday morning in the kitchen of Seth Holly’s Pittsburgh boardinghouse. A skilled black tinsmith, Seth works nights for a white manufacturer. During the day, he makes his own pots and pans on the side and runs the boardinghouse with his wife, Bertha, dreaming of the day he might have his own manufacturing business.
On this Saturday the only lodgers are longtime resident Bynum Walker and a newcomer, Jeremy Furlow, who arrived two weeks earlier from North Carolina. Bynum is a “conjure man” or “root doctor,” who claims that with his roots and herbs he can “bind,” or bring together people who are meant for each other. Jeremy is an irresponsible young man who has come North to find work in the prosperous, industrial city. His main interests are playing his guitar and flirting with pretty women.
Rutherford Selig makes his weekly stop, bringing Seth the raw materials for his pots and pans, which Selig will then sell with the rest of his wares. An itinerant white peddler, Selig keeps track of all the people he meets and claims to be a “People Finder.” For a dollar, Selig will attempt to find any missing person, and when Selig arrives this morning he reports to Bynum that he has still not found Bynum’s “shiny man.”
In a mystical experience on a rural road Bynum once met a “shiny man” who showed him the meaning of life. Bynum has hired Selig to find this or any...
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Dramatic Devices (Masterplots II: Drama, Revised Edition)
In Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, August Wilson’s style is basically realistic. The action takes place almost exclusively in the boardinghouse setting, where ordinary characters face ordinary problems, and their black dialects are faithfully reproduced. This style is useful for examining the mistreatment of black Americans early in the twentieth century because the realism of the presentation mirrors and reinforces Wilson’s insistence on the reality of the historical exploitation and suffering.
Most of the play’s effect, however—its raw emotional power—comes from the nonrealistic elements that Wilson adds to his play. The focus of these elements is the characterization of Bynum Walker. He is portrayed as a man of essentially magical powers, able to work completely unrealistic effects out of roots and herbs, able to penetrate to the essence of a person’s history and character in a way that surpasses ordinary human ability. The basis of these powers was a mystical experience in which he saw sparrows the size of eagles and talked with a man who had light pouring out of him—just before the man disappeared into thin air.
In the play’s opening dialogue, Seth’s disparaging attitude toward Bynum makes Bynum appear eccentric. The subsequent account of Bynum’s mystical experience is very compelling, however, and when he uses such terms as “shiny man,” “the secret of life,” “song,” “binding,” and “the...
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As one of the plays in his ten-play historical cycle chronicling the African-American experience in the twentieth century, Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone is an overtly historical play. In this case, the play concerns what life was like for African Americans in the 1910s. Although slavery was technically illegal at this point, the notorious Joe Turner ignored the law and illegally impressed African Americans into slavery for seven years on his plantation. Says Herald, ‘‘Kept everybody seven years. He’d go out hunting and bring back forty men at a time.’’ Actually, the name ‘‘Joe Turner’’ is incorrect, historically speaking. Although the W. C. Handy song that Wilson bases his play on was called, ‘‘Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,’’ the actual man that the song referred to was named ‘‘Joe Turney,’’ the brother of Tennessee governor Pete Turney. This discrepancy is rarely mentioned by critics, most of whom still refer to the man as ‘‘Turner.’’ Part of the reason for this oversight may come from the fact that, with the exception of Wilson’s play and Handy’s song, Turner’s exploits are often overlooked. Says Jay Plum in his 1993 African American Review article, ‘‘Although the chain gang affected the personal lives of many African Americans, traditional histories of the United States make little or no mention of...
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Questions and Answers: Act I, Scenes 1-2
1. At what point in Scenes1 and 2 does the recurring image of the road appear? What significance does the road have for the former slaves?
2. Who is Martha Pentecost, and why won’t Seth tell Herald that he knows where Martha lives?
3. What is the Binding Song, where does it come from, and what is its significance to Bynum?
4. What are Rutherford Selig’s occupations? What power does he derive from them?
5. What occupations did Rutherford Selig’s father and grandfather have? How are these occupations linked to Selig’s profession as a people finder?
1. The road is an ever-present image in the play because it literally leads people to and from the Hollys’ boardinghouse. Herald and Zonia have been on the road for some time, looking for Martha Loomis. Jeremy’s job is building a new road. Bynum discovers his identity and is given his Binding Song while he is walking down a road. The road is significant for former slaves because since the end of slavery, freed slaves have traveled the roads, heading North in search of new lives, although it is clear from the stories of Herald and Bynum that this is not an “easy road” to take. The road, then, symbolizes both freedom and tribulation.
2. Martha Pentecost is a woman who answers to the description of Herald’s long-lost wife, Martha Loomis. Seth refuses to tell Herald that he...
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Questions and Answers: Act I, Scenes 3-4
1. In Scene 3, what advice does Bynum give Jeremy, and why?
2. What is a Juba? Who participates in the Juba in Scene 4, and how? Who doesn’t take part?
3. How is it significant that the Juba is a cultural form that combines elements of African and Western traditions?
4. Describe Herald’s vision, and explain its significance.
5. What is the meaning of Herald’s paralysis at the end of Scene 4?
1. Bynum advises Jeremy to see the whole woman, not just her physical exterior. He urges Jeremy to recognize that a woman is a whole world and a way of life, and that a woman can offer him more than just a physical relationship; a woman can be all a man needs out of life, like water and berries. She can help a man grow and offer him comfort, just as his mother did when he was a child.
2. A Juba is a call and response dance similar to the Ring Shouts of African-American slaves. The Juba is rooted both in Christian doctrine (the boardinghouse participants’ Juba mentions the Holy Ghost) and in African spiritual traditions. Bynum calls the dance while Seth, Bertha, Mattie, Molly, and Jeremy clap and stomp around the kitchen table. Only Herald Loomis does not participate.
3. The Juba’s combination of Christian and African spiritual traditions is significant because it demonstrates the way that African-American cultural...
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Questions and Answers: Act II, Scenes 1-3
1. What are the differences between Molly and Mattie? How do these characters act as foils for each other?
2. Why is Jeremy fired from his job?
3. Who is Joe Turner, and how has he altered the course of Herald’s life?
4. According to Bynum, how might Herald recover his identity?
5. Why are Herald and Mattie attracted to one another?
1. Molly is an independent woman, traveling on her own and loving and trusting nobody. Mattie wants someone stable to love, and this makes her seem more dependent and lonely. Molly refuses to work, while Mattie must work to sustain herself. They are foils for each other in that they each illuminate the contrasting qualities of the other.
2. Jeremy gets fired from his road-building job because he refuses to pay an extortionist fee that a white man charges all the black laborers. Jeremy appears to be a victim of racism, and the incident, coupled with the availability and willingness of Molly, causes him to decide to leave the boardinghouse and move on.
3. Joe Turner is a powerful white man who kidnapped Herald and made him work on a chain gang for seven years. This altered Herald’s life because he was forcefully taken away from his wife and baby daughter. Ultimately, Joe Turner caused Herald to lose his wife and, more importantly, his identity.
4. Bynum tells Herald that he can...
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Questions and Answers: Act II, Scenes 4-5
1. What occurs between Reuben and Zonia, and how does this recapitulate the themes of the play?
2. What happened to Martha Loomis when Joe Turner took away her husband?
3. Why did Martha Loomis decide to create a new life for herself?
4. How, in the end, does Herald free himself from all the mental and physical bonds placed upon him?
5. How did Selig and Bynum work together to reunite Martha with her daughter Zonia?
1. Reuben and Zonia have been friends for three weeks, when suddenly, Zonia must leave the area with Herald to continue searching for her mother. While they are saying goodbye, Reuben tells Zonia that when he grows up, he is going to find Zonia and make her his wife. This is in keeping with the themes of the play because once again we have two characters who like each other and now are being separated by circumstances beyond their control. Reuben’s desire to find Zonia sometime in the future evokes Selig’s role as people finder, as does Mattie’s desire to recover her lost love, Jack Carper, Bynum’s desire to find the shiny man again, and Herald’s desire to locate his wife.
2. Herald and Martha had been sharecropping some land together when Joe Turner abducted Herald. Martha was unable to continue performing the work on her own. She was evicted from the land and took Zonia to live with her mother. Later, when her...
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African American Drama
Wilson is considered to be one of the premier African-American dramatists, and Joe Turner’s Come and Gone is a prime example of African American drama—plays that generally depict the struggle African Americans have faced in the United States. Wilson’s play is the third in his series of historical plays, each of which is meant to represent a decade from the twentieth century from an African-American point of view. In this case, the play depicts the 1910s, a time when many African Americans were migrating to the Northern states to find work, as Seth notes in the beginning: ‘‘Word get out they need men to work in the mill and put in these roads … and niggers drop everything and head North looking for freedom.’’ African-American dramas often have mostly black characters, just as in this play, where Selig is the only white character who appears on stage. African American dramas also often rely on urban settings and often feature the urban poor, as this play does. With the exception of Selig, everybody who comes to Seth’s boardinghouse struggles to survive. Even Seth, a landowner who has a boardinghouse and two side jobs, cannot make enough money to go into business for himself and get ahead in life. Says Seth: ‘‘I can’t get nowhere working for Mr. Olowski and selling Selig five or six pots on the side.’’
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Compare and Contrast
- Late 1900s/Early 1910s: Jack Johnson becomes the first black man to hold the world heavyweight boxing championship title in 1908. When he successfully defends his title in 1910, race riots break out in the United States.
1980s: African Americans riot in Liberty City, Florida, following the acquittal of police officers accused of killing an unarmed black man.
Today: The largest protest of police brutality in New York’s history occurs after police officers shoot forty-one bullets at Amadou Diallo, a black immigrant.
- Late 1900s/Early 1910s: Many African Americans are denied their freedom when they are impressed into slavery by the influential Tennessee plantation owner, Joe Turney, whose exploits are memorialized in the blues song, ‘‘Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.’’ Other blacks face severe segregation and discrimination.
1980s: Tensions escalate between South Africa’s black majority and the white South African leadership, in part due to the government’s longtime practice of racial segregation and repression—known as apartheid. Through apartheid, the white minority passes laws that restrict the rights of nonwhites, including denying blacks the right to vote. Both the United Kingdom and the United States institute a selective number of economic sanctions against South Africa in protest...
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Topics for Further Study
- Research the history of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and choose one of the major legal cases that it has won. Examine the background for this case, and discuss the effects that the legal victory had on the lives of African Americans. Write a short description of what life might be like today for African Americans if this case had not been won.
- In the play, Jeremy is jailed without cause and fired from his job when he refuses to be extorted. Research modern forms of discrimination against African Americans and other minorities in America, and compare these to the discrimination endured by Jeremy and others in the play. Also, discuss what ongoing efforts are being made to fight discrimination in America.
- Research the history of slavery, and choose another nation, besides African nations, that has been subjected to widespread slavery. Write a journal entry from the perspective of a slave in this other nation.
- Research the cultural and social climate in Pittsburgh in 1911, including the statistics that concern African Americans. Compare this information to modern-day Pittsburgh, and discuss the economic, social, and cultural changes that have taken place in the city.
- America is often referred to as either a mixing bowl—in which various cultures exist together but are separated by their differences—or a melting pot—in which these separate cultures are blended together...
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What Do I Read Next?
- In Brotherman: The Odyssey of Black Men in America (1996), editors Herb Boyd and Robert L. Allen have collected an impressive number and variety of writings by African-American men. The book features more than one hundred entries of fiction and nonfiction works, including slave narratives, autobiographies and biographies, essays, poems, and short stories. Some works are excerpted, while others are reproduced in full. The book also features some previously unpublished writings.
- W. E. B. Du Bois was one of the most vocal African-American leaders in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century. A prolific writer, he also produced several sociological studies that illuminated the African-American experience. One of the first of these, The Philadelphia Negro: A Special Study, first published in 1899, offers an in-depth examination of African-American life in Philadelphia at the end of the nineteenth century. The book featured groundbreaking techniques in urban ethnography, social history, and the use of statistics and is today considered a classic work of social science literature.
- Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk: Essays and Sketches, originally published in 1903, was not well received by white audiences, largely due to the book’s depiction of the unfair treatment of African Americans. In addition, Du Bois shocked both whites and blacks when he publicly announced in the book that he was...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Bogumil, Mary L. Understanding August Wilson. University of South Carolina Press, 1999, p. 65.
Fleche, Anne. "The History Lesson: Authenticity and Anachronism in August Wilson’s Plays," in May All Your Fences Have Gates: Essays on the Drama of August Wilson, edited by Alan Nadel. University of Iowa Press, 1994, p. 14.
Pereira, Kim. August Wilson and the African-American Odyssey. University of Illinois Press, 1995, pp. 70, 81.
Plum, Jay. "Blues, History, and the Dramaturgy of August Wilson," in African American Review, Vol. 27, No. 4, Winter 1993, pp. 561–67.
Shannon, Sandra G. The Dramatic Vision of August Wilson. Howard University Press, 1995, pp. 120–21.
———. "The Ground on Which I Stand: August Wilson’s Perspective on African American Women," in May All Your Fences Have Gates: Essays on the Drama of August Wilson, edited by Alan Nadel. University of Iowa Press, 1994, p. 151.
Wilson, August. Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. Penguin Books, 1988.
———. "The Play," in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. Penguin Books, 1988.
Wolfe, Peter. August Wilson. Twayne Publishers, 1999, pp. 77, 79–80, 88.
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Bibliography (Masterplots II: African American Literature, Revised Edition)
Bernstein, Richard. “August Wilson’s Voices from the Past.” New York Times, March 27, 1988, sec. 2, p. 1.
Brown, Chip. “The Light in August.” Esquire 111 (April, 1989): 116. Explains that Wilson has found a way to formulate his politics in his art; he emphasizes black life on its own terms, not in confrontation with the white system.
De Vries, Hilary. “A Song in Search of Itself.” American Theatre 3 (January, 1987): 22-25.
Freedman, Samuel G. “A Voice from the Streets.” The New York Times Magazine 136 (March 15, 1987): 36. Notes that most of Wilson’s plays concern the conflict between those who embrace their African past and those who deny it. The plays reflect a positive sense of racial identity Wilson received from his mother.
Harrison, Paul Carter. “August Wilson’s Blues Poetics.” In August Wilson, Three Plays. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1991. Discusses how Joe Turner’s Come and Gone operates outside the restraining logic of naturalism. Argues that Wilson has reclaimed the blues voice as the vehicle for black narratives and has reaffirmed the potency of the African continuum as a repository of values.
Herrington, Joan. I Ain’t Sorry for Nothin’ I Done: August Wilson’s Process of...
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