When Joe Turner’s Come and Gone opened on Broadway in the spring of 1988, August Wilson’s play Fences (pr., pb. 1985) was still in its Broadway run, putting Wilson in the unusual position of having two plays running on Broadway at the same time. Both plays won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award, as had Wilson’s earlier play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (pr. 1984, pb. 1985). Fences also won a Tony Award and a Pulitzer Prize. By the end of the decade, Wilson had clearly established himself as the most honored American playwright to emerge in the 1980’s.
Set in 1911, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone is one entry in Wilson’s ten-play cycle in which each play explores a different decade of African American struggle in the twentieth century. He wrote as a self-proclaimed Black Nationalist, but his mature plays are enthusiastically received by racially mixed, “mainstream” audiences.
Indeed, Wilson’s nationalism does not manifest itself in overt denunciations of white racism, although an awareness of the history of the oppression and exploitation suffered by African Americans certainly plays a significant part in his work. In Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, the figure of Joe Turner unmistakably symbolizes the white oppressor, and Rutherford Selig engages in small-time exploitation of Seth and of those who use his services as a “People Finder.” Moreover, the white men who refuse to...
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