The Play

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

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, and Bynum is known as a rootworker, a conjure man, a man who can fix things. Will he use his powers to bring her man back? Jeremy, another boarder, not long from the country, offers to be Mattie’s man, at least for a while.

Seth Holly’s watchful eye makes sure there is no carrying on in the boardinghouse, and his observations now tell him who Loomis’s wife is. Zonia bears a striking resemblance to a woman Seth and Bertha know as Martha Pentecost, a former resident of the boardinghouse. Seth, though, says nothing to Loomis, because he senses that there is something not quite right about him. Moreover, Seth, who runs the boardinghouse, makes pots and pans for Selig to peddle, and tries to get backing to set up a business, has enough on his mind without getting involved in other people’s affairs.

By Sunday morning, Mattie has decided to move in with Jeremy. Before the day is over, another young woman, Molly Cunningham, has rented a room for a week, and Jeremy is immediately attracted to her.

While waiting to hear from Selig, Loomis continues to act in ways that do not seem right to Seth. He goes too far, in Seth’s view, when he interrupts the juba dance that is a Sunday night ritual at the boardinghouse and collapses after uttering a vision involving bones walking on water.


(The entire section is 1142 words.)