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.


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The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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...

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Historical Context

(Drama for Students)

Playbill cover from the 1988 theatrical production Joe Turners Come and Gone, performed at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre in New York City Published by Gale Cengage

Joe Turner
As one of the plays in his ten-play historical cycle chronicling the African-American experience in the...

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Literary Style

(Drama for Students)

African American Drama
Wilson is considered to be one of the premier African-American dramatists, and

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Compare and Contrast

(Drama for Students)

  • Late 1900s/Early 1910s: Jack Johnson becomes the first black man to hold the world heavyweight boxing championship...

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Topics for Further Study

(Drama for Students)

  • Research the history of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and choose one of the major legal cases that it...

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What Do I Read Next?

(Drama for Students)

  • In Brotherman: The Odyssey of Black Men in America (1996), editors Herb Boyd and Robert L. Allen have collected an...

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Bibliography and Further Reading

(Drama for Students)

Bogumil, Mary L. Understanding August Wilson. University of South Carolina Press, 1999, p. 65.


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(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

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...

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