Joe Turner's Come and Gone

by August Wilson

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The Play

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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.

For Seth, this amounts to “carrying on,” and over Bertha’s objections, he tells Loomis that he will have to leave the following Saturday. Other residents will also be leaving soon. Jeremy has been fired, and he and Molly decide to travel together.

That evening, Bynum sings “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” as he and Seth play dominoes. When Loomis insists that Bynum stop singing the song, Bynum replies that Loomis seems to him to be a man who has forgotten his song. Each person has a song, Bynum believes, and a man who forgets his searches for it until he realizes he has had it with him all along. Bynum has realized that Loomis is one...

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of “Joe Turner’s niggers.”

Provoked by Bynum, Loomis tells his story. In 1901, he was caught by Joe Turner, who hunts men as another might hunt possum, and was forced to serve seven years as an indentured servant. By the time he was free, his wife had gone. He has been searching for her ever since, sure that the sight of her face will give him the starting place he needs to begin the life that must take the place of the one taken from him by Joe Turner.

What, Loomis asks, does Joe Turner want? He wants your song, Bynum explains. That is why, for seven years, Loomis could not let himself sing it. After all that time, he forgot how; but, says Bynum, Loomis’s song is still with him. “You one of them bones people,” Loomis says to Bynum.

Bertha’s attempts to console Mattie after Jeremy’s defection are only partly successful, but Mattie does respond to Loomis when he asks her to be with him. She hesitates, though, because the power she senses in Loomis frightens her. “You’d use me up too fast,” she tells him. When Loomis tries to touch Mattie, he finds that he cannot. “I done forgot how to touch,” he says.

On Saturday morning, Selig brings Martha to the boardinghouse. “I been looking for you,” she tells Loomis. She came to the North, she explains, because the trouble that black people were having in the South led her pastor to decide to move the church. Not knowing what might happen on the journey, Martha left Zonia with Martha’s mother, who would keep her safe. She is, then, anything but a woman who simply walked away from her man and abandoned her child; she has been looking for them ever since she learned that Loomis had taken Zonia. During Loomis’s time away, however, she had to accept that he had died to her. She has mourned him and moved on.

Loomis tells Martha that he has wanted to say his good-bye to her and to reunite her with her daughter. Loomis says he has done all he can for Zonia, who he says needs her mother.

Loomis then angrily accuses Bynum of having bound him to the road. Drawing a knife, Loomis shouts that no one is going to bind him. Bynum says Loomis has it wrong; he did not bind Loomis to the road. “I bound the little girl to her mother,” he states.

Concerned for Loomis, Martha urges him to have faith. Loomis replies that Jesus Christ is merely a white man “with a whip in one hand and a tote board in the other.” When Martha tells him that Jesus bled for him, Loomis replies that he can bleed for himself. Using the knife with which he threatened Bynum, he draws his own blood. With this act of self-assertion comes the realization that he is standing free on his own; he has found his song. Joe Turner has finally gone. Now Loomis can move on. Mattie follows him out the door. Looking after them, Bynum sees that Loomis is “shining like new money.”

The Play

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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 other “shiny man” because Bynum believes that if he sees another shiny man it will be an infallible sign that his life’s work has been fulfilled.

After Selig leaves, a mysterious and brooding stranger arrives at the door with his eleven-year-old daughter. Herald Loomis is searching for his wife and takes temporary lodgings. When he hears about Rutherford Selig, the People Finder, Loomis is determined to stay until next Saturday and hire Selig to find his wife, Martha.

In act 2, the audience will learn that ten years before the action of the play began, Herald Loomis, his wife Martha, and their baby daughter Zonia were living on a farm outside Memphis, Tennessee, where Herald was a sharecropper and a deacon in the Abundant Life Church. One day Herald was abducted and enslaved by Joe Turner (a real person in American history) and forced to pick cotton for seven years. After he was released, Herald returned to his farm only to find that his wife had left their daughter with her mother and gone North. For more than three years Herald and his daughter have been searching for Martha.

The next Saturday arrives, Selig returns, and Herald hires him to find Martha. Herald’s taciturn, brooding manner and his wild and savage look have unnerved Seth since Herald’s arrival, but Seth’s apprehensions turn to open hostility in the last scene of act 1, Sunday evening after dinner. The residents have gathered for a Juba, an African call and response dance that ends in a religious frenzy. Herald enters in the middle of the dance and in a rage attacks religion as an ineffectual crutch for black people. In a frenzy himself, Herald unzips his trousers, exposes himself, and begins chanting in tongues, dancing around the kitchen. He collapses, recalling a powerful visionary experience of haunting imagery, and Bynum questions him avidly while the rest of the residents sit in stunned silence. Seth is outraged and determined to evict Herald as the first act ends.

At the beginning of act 2, Herald counters Seth’s demand by insisting that he has a right to stay until the next Saturday because he has paid in advance. Seth reluctantly agrees. On Monday Jeremy reports that he has been fired from his construction job because he would not pay protection money to a white man. He persuades Molly, another resident, to leave with him, and they depart from the boardinghouse to see the world and pursue a life of pleasure.

In the last scene of the play it is Saturday again, and Selig returns with Martha in tow. When Herald accuses Martha of abandoning him and their daughter, Martha explains that she has spent the last three years looking for them. Herald explains that he has searched for Martha because he wanted to give Zonia a mother and say his goodbye to Martha face to face: “Now that I see your face I can say my goodbye and make my own world.” This ritualistic act has not eased Herald’s mind, however; he still feels enormous anger and resentment because he continues to feel trapped by his past.

Bynum explains to Herald that he has trapped himself, that he has let Joe Turner take his “song,” that all he needs to do to be free is to reclaim his song and sing it. As the play ends, Herald has come to realize that Bynum is right. He has rediscovered his song, the “song of self-sufficiency.” He quietly says good-bye to Martha and exits, and Bynum realizes that he has just met his second “shiny man.”

Dramatic Devices

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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 road,” it seems quite possible that Bynum is no mere eccentric. The terms are clearly metaphorical and carry thematic import. Then, early in the first act, Mattie Campbell comes to Bynum and asks him to work his magic to return her husband to her. Bynum becomes a very believable part of the play because his response to Mattie is unusually sensible and not at all eccentric. The audience willingly suspends its disbelief, and Bynum’s magical powers become an accepted part of an essentially realistic play.

The vision recounted by Herald Loomis when he interrupts the Juba is as mystical and metaphorical as Bynum’s. Herald’s is a vision of the history of slavery, the central experience of African Americans, and at the end of his description, Herald reports that in the vision and at that very moment he is not able to stand. This image is specifically echoed at the end of the play. In his frustration, Herald slashes himself with a knife. He then rubs himself with his own blood and is able to stand, say good-bye to Martha, and leave, whereupon Bynum ends the play with the prophetic words, “Herald Loomis, you shining! You shining like new money!” These nonrealistic elements give Wilson’s basically realistic play a haunting and poetic quality that realism alone would not have been able to achieve.

Historical Context

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Joe Turner
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 the phenomenon.’’

In addition to Turney’s blatant disregard for the law, another form of slavery existed in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century—peonage, or debt slavery. Although the federal government outlawed the practice of peonage with the 1867 Peonage Abolition Act, Southern states still passed a number of laws that allowed African Americans to be fooled into signing contracts that committed them to debt slavery. Some of these contracts were disguised as good opportunities to work off a debt or court fine. In these cases, a landowner would offer to pay an African-American’s debt in exchange for having the man work the debt off on the landowner’s farm. However, this was often a trap because many landowners would simply charge the unwitting slave more room and board than he could pay for, effectively keeping the slave in perpetual debt and bonding him to the landowner forever. Eventually, the ban on peonage was enforced, although the first conviction of a landowner engaged in the act of peonage did not happen until 1901; and the defendant was later pardoned by President Theodore Roosevelt. In 1911, when the play takes place, peonage was still widely practiced despite a Supreme Court ruling the same year that declared state peonage laws unconstitutional.

The Great Migration
Even when African Americans were not coerced into slavery, many of them worked in slave-like conditions, especially in the South. Many newly freed slaves, unable to find work elsewhere, were forced to work Southern lands as sharecroppers, or tenant farmers. Slaves who became sharecroppers would generally lease a portion of a landowner’s cropland, farming it, and giving a portion of the crop—or the money earned from selling the crop—to the landowner. However, while blacks were now paid for their efforts, it was rarely enough to survive. In the play, Herald and Martha are sharecroppers, until he is abducted by Joe Turner. When Herald is released, he recounts how he tried to return to his life. Says Herald: ‘‘I made it back to Henry Thompson’s place where me and Martha was sharecropping and Martha’s gone. She taken my little girl and left her with her mama and took off North.’’ When Herald decides to take Zonia and go up North to find Martha, he joins many other African Americans who were also hitting the road for a variety of reasons. In her 1995 book, The Dramatic Vision of August Wilson, Sandra G. Shannon discusses this massive northward movement of African Americans, known as the Great Migration. Says Shannon: ‘‘The historical context out of which the play evolves includes a backdrop of frustrated sharecroppers; hundreds of unemployed, unskilled laborers; countless broken families; and a pervasive rumor of a better life up North.’’ This northward movement of American Americans was one of many such migrations that happened during the twentieth century, as many moved from the rural South to Northern cities. Herald Loomis’s migration in the early twentieth century directly preceded a much larger movement, called the ‘‘Great Migration,’’ which took place during World War I.

W. E. B. Du Bois and the NAACP
The beginning of the twentieth century also witnessed the rise of W. E. B. Du Bois one of the most important figures in African-American history. Du Bois, who received his doctorate from Harvard University in 1896, took America by storm when he published his 1903 book, The Souls of Black Folk. In the book, Du Bois publicly denounced the policy of Booker T. Washington—an influential black leader who encouraged African Americans to put up with discrimination from whites and to concentrate their energies instead on educating themselves. Du Bois’s attack on Washington created a split in African-American political support. Conservatives aligned themselves with Washington, while more radical members followed Du Bois. In 1905, Du Bois led a group of almost thirty African Americans in secret to Niagara Falls, Ontario, where they founded the Niagara Movement. Although this organization—which was effectively set up to oppose Washington’s conservative policies—never gained a massive following, it did provide a forum to discuss civil rights issues. In 1909, the Niagara Movement, under the direction of Du Bois, merged with a group of concerned whites to create the interracial organization, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Since 1909, the NAACP has been extremely influential, especially in a legal sense, in the fight to promote equal civil rights for African Americans.

Literary Style

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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.’’

The play takes place in a boardinghouse, a confined location that provides a common meeting place for several distinct characters. By limiting the action to the boardinghouse and its yard, Wilson does not need to spend any extra time establishing several different locations. As a result, Wilson is able to examine the various characters in greater depth in a shorter period of time than plays with several locations. The actual location of the boardinghouse is important, too. Pittsburgh was one of the key Northern cities that many African Americans migrated to from the South, and so was a symbol of the freedom that blacks expected to find in the North. As Wilson notes in his preface, entitled ‘‘The Play,’’ these ‘‘sons and daughters of newly freed African slaves’’ come to the city ‘‘carrying Bibles and guitars, their pockets lined with dust and fresh hope.’’ However, as Seth notes, the idea of Northern prosperity was not realized by many blacks because whites often competed for these jobs, and whites were generally favored over blacks. Says Seth: ‘‘White fellows coming from all over the world. White fellow come over and in six months got more than what I got.’’

A metaphor is an implied meaning or significance of a word or object that is different than the original meaning. In the play, Wilson uses many metaphors, the chief one being the search for one’s song, or identity. Says Bynum to Herald: ‘‘Now, I can look at you, Mr. Loomis, and see you a man who done forgot his song. Forgot how to sing it. A fellow forget that and he forget who he is.’’ Bynum does not mean that Herald has literally forgotten how to sing a song that he used to know. Instead, the song is a metaphor for Herald’s identity, and the African-American cultural identity in general. Since this identity is derived from Herald’s African past, in which music plays a large part, the metaphor becomes very fitting—and resonates with audience members if they are aware of this well-documented connection. The search to regain this song by Herald and others introduces several other metaphors into the play. For example, the boardinghouse, which is technically just a building, becomes a place of healing for many of the tenants, who are searching to fix their lives. Characters like Bertha and Bynum help to underscore this idea, since they both help to guide these wandering, searching souls in various ways. When Jeremy leaves Mattie, Bertha helps Mattie by telling her not to worry about love, which will find its way to her in time. Says Bertha: ‘‘Trying to figure it out don’t do nothing but give you a troubled mind. Don’t no man want a woman with a troubled mind.’’

Most of the metaphors in the play link in some way to the idea of identity. Other metaphors include the idea of the shiny man, a man that signifies African-American independence. Bynum meets a strange man on the road when he is younger, and this man has Bynum hold out his hands. He has Bynum rub their hands together, and when Bynum looks at their combined hands, he sees that ‘‘they got blood on them.’’ The man tells Bynum to ‘‘take and rub it all over me … say that was a way of cleaning myself.’’ This act causes Bynum to have a vision, in which life is magnified and the strange man starts ‘‘shining like new money.’’ Although this collection of ideas might be confusing to an audience member when it appears in the first scene, the significance makes more sense at the end of the play. When Herald hears from his wife, Martha, that he should ‘‘be washed with the blood of the lamb,’’ he tells her, ‘‘I can bleed for myself.’’ After slashing himself across the chest with his knife, Herald wipes his blood on his face, just as Bynum did with the shiny man. This act frees Herald from his past, and as Bynum notes, causes Herald to shine ‘‘like new money!’’ The man that Bynum met on the road was an independent black man, someone who had found his song and was self-sufficient, with no chains to the past. To Bynum, therefore, this man shone, just as Herald is now shining, ‘‘Having found his song, the song of self-sufficiency,’’ as Wilson notes in the stage directions.

Compare and Contrast

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  • 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 of its racial policies.

    Today: Following the first all-race national elections in 1994, South Africa’s government now features a black majority and a permanent, nonracial constitution.

  • Late 1900s/Early 1910s: W. E. B. Du Bois helps found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) with the help of Jane Addams and John Dewey, two concerned white activists. Du Bois is one of the most influential public figures of his day.

    1980s: The Reverend Jesse Jackson runs for the Democratic presidential nomination twice and wins a significant amount of support each time from both blacks and whites.

    Today: General Colin Powell is the United States Secretary of State under President George W. Bush and is the first African American to hold this position.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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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.

Further Reading
Aptheker, Herbert, ed. A Documentary History of the Negro People in the United State 1910–1932, 1973; reprint, Carol Publishing Group, 1993. Aptheker’s renowned historical study of African-American history relies on original documents—including essays, reports, speeches, letters, and news articles—from people who lived during this time period. Collectively, the book offers a good picture of what life was like for African Americans from 1910 to 1932. Among the many topics covered is peonage.

Earle, Jonathan. The Routledge Atlas of African-American History. Routledge, 2000. This book chronicles the four centuries of African-American history and culture in the United States, from the arrival of the first African slaves in the early 1600s to the present day. The book contains short essays on everything from politics to sports, and each topic is depicted with photographs, charts, graphs, maps, and other illustrations. The book also features a chronology of African history from 3200 B.C.E. through the late 1990s.

Elkins, Marilyn. August Wilson: A Casebook. Garland Publishing, Inc., 2000. Originally published in 1994, this revised collection of essays explores several aspects of Wilson’s life and career, including the playwright’s creative process, his famous collaboration with theater director Lloyd Richards, and the various contexts of Wilson’s plays. The book also includes a 1993 interview with the playwright.

Handy, W. C. Father of the Blues: An Autobiography. Da Capo Press, 1991. Through songs like "Joe Turner’s Come and Gone," W. C. Handy chronicled the African-American experience through his blues music. In this autobiography, Handy explores the roots of jazz and blues and discusses the background of some of his most famous songs.

Herrington, Joan. I Ain’t Sorry for Nothin’ I Done: August Wilson’s Process of Playwrighting. Limelight Editions, 1998. In this book, Herrington discusses the development of three of Wilson’s plays, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, Fences, and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Through her analysis, Herrington explores the various experiences in Wilson’s life that influenced his drama.

Schwartzman, Myron. Romare Bearden: His Life and Art. Harry N. Abrams, 1990. Although Wilson and Bearden came from distinctly different backgrounds, they captured the African-American experience in similar ways. Bearden captured it with art, and Wilson through plays—which were sometimes inspired by Bearden’s art. This book offers a look at Bearden’s life and features both black-and-white and color reproductions of many of Bearden’s works. It also includes several interviews with Bearden.


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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 Playwriting. New York: Limelight, 1998.

Poinsett, Alec. “August Wilson: Hottest New Playwright.” Ebony 43 (November, 1987): 68. Poinsett examines how Wilson excavates much of his dramatic material from the blues. The song in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone is a metaphor for a cultural heritage African Americans should retain and celebrate.

Reed, Ishmael. “August Wilson: The Dramatist as Bearer of Tradition.” In Writin’ Is Fightin’: Thirty-seven Years of Boxing on Paper. New York: Atheneum, 1990. Reed asserts that Wilson is a “tradition bearer,” one who knows the old stories and reveres the styles in which they are rendered. Values such as self-reliance and family are among his major concerns. Wilson’s characters, Reed observes, are heirs to the disaster that occurred during the nineteenth century, when the gains of Reconstruction were forfeited. Reed also notes that more than Wilson’s earlier plays, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone contains elements of the supernatural.

Savran, David, ed. “August Wilson.” In In Their Own Words: Contemporary American Playwrights. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1988.

Shafer, Yvonne. August Wilson: A Research and Production Sourcebook. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998.

Shannon, Sandra Garrett. The Dramatic Vision of August Wilson. Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1995.

Wilson, August. Interview by Kim Powers. Theatre 16 (Fall/Winter, 1984): 50-55.

Zoglin, Richard, and Jonathan Beaty. “Exorcising the Demons of Memory.” Time, April 11, 1988, 77-78.


Critical Essays


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