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 back Seth’s efforts to set up a business take their place in a pattern of white racism. Similarly, in Fences, the white baseball owners who have denied Troy Maxson and others their opportunity to play in the big leagues, and the sanitation department officials who reserve the preferred driving jobs for whites only, combine to impose limits on black aspirations. Ma Rainey and the other musicians are also victims of white exploitation in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.
Wilson, in a move of genuine artistic, ethical, and political affirmation, refuses to grant the oppressors and exploiters a place at the heart of African American life. Beyond question, they often define limiting external conditions on that life. Wilson, though, is concerned not with the surrounding conditions of African American life but with the life itself. The tensions, tragedies, and triumphs depicted in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone and in Wilson’s other plays arise from within the African American community, out of the needs, hopes, and struggles of African American people. African Americans have, in Wilson’s eyes, their own identity, their own dignity, their own significance. They are not defined by their relation to the white world. Thus, Joe Turner can make a captive of Herald Loomis, but it is Herald Loomis, finding strength in reestablishing ties to his personal and racial past and to the African American community, who finally must set himself free.
In his first successful play, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Wilson celebrated without sentimentality the genius of African American music. In Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, he gave dramatic life to the belief that, in a cultural heritage ultimately African in inspiration, the African American can find an inexhaustible source of strength and renewal.