Joe Turner’s Come and Gone was the fourth play to be produced in August Wilson’s ten-play cycle focusing on the lives of African Americans over the course of the twentieth century. Each play is set in a different decade, and Joe Turner’s Come and Gone represents the 1910’s. In the play, Wilson addresses the cultural and familial loss that resulted from the turn-of-the-century Great Northern Migration, in which many African Americans left the agrarian South and moved to the industrialized North. Considered the most symbolic of the cycle’s ten plays and therefore the most difficult to stage, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone was Wilson’s favorite, for it contains all of the important elements of the cycle as a whole.
The final scenes of acts 1 and 2 illustrate Wilson’s central theme: the importance of understanding one’s cultural and personal past in order to survive the present. When Herald Loomis rejects the juba, the African-influenced dance, because of the mention of the phrase “Holy Ghost,” he enters into his own trance-like vision of the bones people. His vision is a summary of the history of Africans Americans; it is a representation of the Middle Passage, the departure of Africans from one shore, the loss in the water of those who did not survive the crossing, and the arrival (rebirth) whole—in the flesh—on another shore. The vision is a representation not only of the Middle Passage but also of slavery and the postbellum forced servitude that many, such as Loomis, endured.
Because Loomis is unwilling to accept his cultural, historical, and personal pasts, he is unable to stand with those who rise and walk at the end of act 1. In the second act, however, Loomis confronts the personal demons of his past by telling his story of being unjustly incarcerated, finding his wife, and realizing the limitations of Christianity in his life. Then, in a ritualistic act that echoes the juba scene, he slashes himself and discovers that he can stand. Coming to terms with his African, African American, and personal pasts, Loomis finds his song—his way of...
(The entire section is 864 words.)