August Wilson, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone

Wilson, August. Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. Plume, 1988.

Summary of Work
Set in Pittsburgh during the Great Migration, the play’s central focus is on the characters living and coming and going from the boarding house Seth and Bertha Holly run, a boarding house they inherited from Seth’s father, a Northern free black man. Bynum, a boarder at the house, is performing a sacrificial ritual on a pigeon in the backyard when the play opens, and Seth is upset because he doesn’t approve of the voudon rituals being done at his house. Still, Seth sits and watches Bynum while he waits for Rutherford Selig to drop in. He buys metal from Selig to make pans with, and then when Selig returns, he sells the pans to Selig for him to then sell to other customers. While Seth would love to start a pan selling business, he cannot because he cannot obtain the capital needed to start it unless he offers his home as collateral, a price he is not willing to pay.

When Selig comes by and sells metal to Seth, Bynum comes back in. He hires Selig to find the “shiny man,” because he knows Selig can track and find anyone. But when Selig asks for more details about the man so he can actually go about the task of finding him, Bynum refuses, saying only that he had a mystical experience where he saw a shiny man who led him to his father, and then Bynum’s father taught Bynum a song that gave him the power to bind people together (hence his name). Selig leaves with the information, and those present are doubtful that Selig will be able to find such a person given Bynum’s description.

After Selig leaves, Jeremy Furlow, another boarder, comes back from jail. Seth warns him that he will not allow him to stay in the home if he keeps up his behavior, but Bynum offers Jeremy the idea of entering a guitar contest. Jeremy states that he doesn’t like the idea because of a bad experience, and instead starts talking about perhaps meeting a woman that isn’t desperate and clingy as a way to solve his problems. Just then, another boarder, Mattie Campbell, comes looking for Bynum to have him bring her beau back, but he tells her that she needs to learn to let him go. Seeing the situation, Jeremy starts flirting, and they decide to go out on a date.

When those two exit, Harold Loomis enters with his daughter, Zonia. They are looking for his wife, Martha, and they need a place to stay for a time. When Bynum hears about the situation, he tells Harold he should talk to Selig, because he can find anyone. But Seth is worried about the situation because Harold is agitated; Seth thinks he knows who Harold’s wife is: Martha Pentecost. He doesn’t say anything and decides to mind his own business. Still, Bertha and Seth start talking about the situation, and they decide that Martha had in fact come to stay at their boarding house years previously when she was looking for Bynum, and that she had moved out to go with the church to another town about a year previous. When Selig comes to do his regular business with Seth, Loomis pays Selig to find Martha.

Meanwhile, things are going well between Jeremy and Mattie, and he asks her to move in with him. But then Molly Cunningham comes to the boarding house in search of a room to rent, and Jeremy becomes infatuated with her, threatening to destroy his relationship with Mattie.

That evening, the whole household except Harold are conversing and they get patting juba. Jeremy brings down his guitar to accompany the rhythmic clapping, patting, and dancing. Harold comes in furious, shouting at them to stop, but becomes paralyzed suddenly, having seen a vision because of the religious power present within the history of the juba dance. Bynum acts as a mediator, helping Harold to reveal the vision of bones rising out of the water and walking on top of the water, then sinking to create a wave that washes up the bones onto the shore. The bones become African Americans. Harold is one of the bodies that has been washed to shore and given flesh once again, and Bynum tries to get him to stand and walk. Harold cannot, and he collapses.

Seth, scared by the behavior, tells Harold that he must leave, but he tells Seth that they are paid up through Saturday, and they will not be leaving until then. Molly is also downstairs complaining to Mattie about having to work for other people. She doesn’t understand why Mattie is working if she’s with Jeremy and he can support her. As Mattie leaves, Jeremy enters, having lost his job for refusing to pay a white man what he asked. He is upset over the exploitation of not just himself but of all black workers, but Seth tells him that he needs to get over it and go back to work because he needs the money. Jeremy, not listening, grabs his guitar and says he will go on the road to find a better situation. He starts flirting with Molly after that, and he convinces her to leave town with him for a better life.

In the afternoon, Bynum is singing a song about Joe Turner, the white man who illegally enslaved African-American men to exploit their labor. Harold hears the song and tells him to stop singing it because he doesn’t like it, and Bynum uses it as an opportunity to learn about Harold’s past. He tells Bynum that Joe Turner is the man who kidnapped him and forced him to work for seven years, stealing him away from his newborn child and his wife. During those years, Martha left his daughter with her mother and disappeared, and he has been looking for Martha ever since he got out of bondage.

Mattie, meanwhile, is upset over Jeremy’s leaving, and Bertha tells her she should just forget about him. Harold is attracted to Mattie but is unable to talk to her about it. Zonia is playing in the backyard, and she meets a neighbor boy named Reuben. They talk about how Zonia and Harold are looking for Martha, her mother, and as they are playing, Reuben talks about his friend Eugene, and how he always kept these pigeons, the ones that Bynum keeps using for ritual sacrifice. He has come to free the pigeons, because it is what Eugene had asked him to do, and he feels he must do it to honor Eugene.

On Saturday morning, Zonia and Harold are scheduled to leave, but Martha arrives just in time to catch them. She and Harold talk about their lives and her decision to leave because of how difficult her life had become after he had been imprisoned. Harold tells Zonia that she must now go with her mother, and Martha thanks Bynum for his help in the process. Then Loomis gets angry at Bynum, blaming him for his life and his predicament, and he slashes his own chest in frustration as he mocks Martha’s religion. Then he walks out. Mattie realizes that she is bound to Harold, and she runs after him, and Bynum finally recognizes Loomis as his “shiny man.”

Discussion of Work
This work tells stories about several important historical narratives in African American history: re-enslavement and oppression, migration, and religion, music, and dance and their interconnectedness. The play’s name itself centers the play around the re-enslavement and forced labor of African American men. Readers and viewers alike are forced to see and contemplate the oppression and disadvantage that black people of that time had: if they aren’t re-enslaved like Loomis was, they are disallowed to build businesses and progress, exploited and unfairly compensated for their labor, and forced into less than favorable economic situations. The unfavorable and oppressive situation in the South leads to a migration North in hopes of better treatment, only to find similar hardships once there.

Yet despite all this hardship, the play demonstrates how important it is to understand that for all the economic poverty and oppression, there is a rich cultural life that is lost when only looking at the economics and social politics of the time. Martha represents the Christian influence and importance of the Church in black life, and Bynum represents the still powerful and relevant religious beliefs evolved in the African Diaspora. The two are not opposites of each other, as white Christianity would have us believe, but intertwined and both important in the religious understanding of the characters. Bynum serves as a practitioner who can not only bind people’s souls together (like Martha’s and Zonia’s), but can walk people through difficult portions of their lives and bring them understanding through his suggestions. Dances like the juba, which were originally sacred in origin and then moved into the secular sphere, still have both functions in the African American cultural experience and understanding. The dance then becomes the central turning point scene for the entire play.

Response for Future Use in Dissertation
August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone lives and dies by the songs within the souls of its characters. The song in Bertha’s soul is a home full of laughter and love; the song in Seth’s soul is order, propriety, and creation; and the song in Bynum’s soul is the religious power of binding people together, and bears the great responsibility of helping people find their way in this life and the next. Each of these individuals play an important part in helping Herald Loomis, a man who has lost his song, and therefore his purpose in life, come to understand that his life will only have meaning if he finds his song, his desires and drives, within himself again.

Herald Loomis is a wanderer, a man whose life experience and values are difficult to grasp at any given moment in the play. While from the very beginning he states that he and his daughter are looking for his wife, readers feel uneasy about the reasoning behind this search. Loomis does not move, does not seem to be searching for his wife, but instead waiting for her to arrive; he does not engage in conversation with the others at the boardinghouse, eats his meals alone, and rarely speaks to his daughter except for to tell her to behave. With no growth or movement in his body, and no music in his soul, he seems a dead man in comparison to everyone around him[1].

The Juba scene, then, can be said to be the turning point of the entire play for Loomis, because it is at that point that he realizes he is a dead man, and must do something about it. Juba, as music and dance, is closely related to the Ring Shout, and utilizes religious themes while participants shout, chant, and move in a circle as they dance different movements. Juba needs no instruments: the rhythm of Juba is often patted on the body, as well as on readily available objects. The music for Juba quite literally comes from the movement of the body, offering a direct connection to religious figures through the medium of drum-like music. While the context of Juba does not always have to be religious, in this scene, it is apparent that Wilson intends it to be a religious ritual of spiritual awakening.

Our main cue to know this will be a spiritual awakening is that Bynum, the conjure man of the group, calls the dance, and the others participate in the creation of the music. Wilson writes stage directions for the actors to “include some mention of the Holy Ghost,” and that “It should be as African as possible, with the performers working themselves up into a near frenzy” (52). We are meant to recognize the religious connotations as these characters lose control of themselves and give themselves up to a higher power, which Bynum calls upon through his chanting as he presides over the group. Yet the spirit coming to visit the participants is not a Loa or an Orisha, as might be expected, but a soul Bynum needs to help free from the bondage of past slavery.

Loomis loses his mind as he comes into the room, screaming that the Holy Ghost will burn them up, and then dancing around the room with his pants down as he speaks unintelligibly, as if taken over by spirits. As he gains enough control of himself to try to leave the room, he has a vision of himself, all bones rising up out of the water, sinking down, and then being pushed by a wave onto the beach, the bones now covered in flesh, waiting to be brought to life and stand, yet unable to (53-5). Bynum guides him through this journey, pushing him to realize that he is accountable for his lack of movement, and he must find a way to put himself together and move forward with all the other black figures he sees moving along the beach. “I got to stand up. Get up on the road,” he says, but when he tries, he collapses, his legs unable to bear his weight (56). The change has begun for Harold Loomis and he knows it needs to happen, although he has been resistant to it. His soul has been dead for too long, and he cannot stand up, because he is not strong enough, and he must start to slowly rediscover his soul’s song in order to move again.

Bynum from then on meddles with Loomis through music, singing the song “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” to pull out the story he knows is the story of so many men: taken prisoner for no reason, forced to work in a chain gang, and set loose seven years later, having lost song, spirit, and all material goods in life. Still, Loomis refuses to recognize his value, his calling, and his song. It is not until the very end when not Bynum, but Loomis’ wife Martha, coaxes Loomis’ song out of him as she quotes scripture to him and he, in musical form, responds to each line of scripture she quotes.

Wilson states in the stage directions that what Loomis has learned is his song, “the song of self-sufficiency” (93), and having found that song, he finds himself freed of all his past as he accepts responsibility for himself. Once he came to understand how his song was meant to respond to the call of life’s experiences, he learned how to get up, walk, and respond to life’s challenges, joys, and beautiful moments. The call and response of blues music allows Loomis to reconnect with life in a way that no other medium had allowed him to after the trauma of enslavement. Blues music, then, is the key to processing, coming to terms with, and moving forward from the injustices of life as a black man in the racist South, and a prejudiced America.

[1] Delroy Lindo, at the 10th Anniversary August Wilson Conference in Washington, DC, spoke of the genuine struggle it was for him as an actor to feel he could find the motivations for Herald Loomis. He said that while the director felt that Lindo was a good fit to play the role, Wilson, never satisfied and always looking for the best actors, kept auditioning for the role of Loomis until just before opening, hoping that there might be someone who could capture his character better. But he did not tell Lindo he was doing so; Lindo only found out through the director. Frustrated at the difficulty of the character and angry at Wilson for seemingly not trusting him with the role, he worked harder. Yet he said he never found the motivations in rehearsals. It was not until he got on stage to perform that he felt he had understood and become Herald Loomis. The power to perform in order to find oneself, then, cannot be overstated for this character.

August Wilson, The Piano Lesson

Wilson, August. The Piano Lesson. 1990 Plume, 2013.

Summary of Work
Boy Willie and his friend Lymon go North to visit Boy Willie’s sister Berniece and to sell a truck full of watermelons. They intend to take a family heirloom, a piano, from her so they can sell it to buy land that was previously owned by the family who had enslaved their family. Sutter, the landowner, was said to have died by the hands of ghosts. But Berniece won’t sell the piano, even though she won’t play the piano either. The piano has been in their family for over a hundred years, when the first Boy Willie carved the faces of his son and wife into the piano after the Sutters had sold them to buy it. He also carved their family history from Africa forward into the wood. Decades afterward, the boys of the family—Wining Boy, Doaker, and Boy Charles—decided to steal the piano rather than let it remain with the Sutter family. The family history carved into it represented the family’s soul, and they could not leave it in the hands of their former slavers. They got the piano, but not before Sutter caught up to them and burned Boy Charles and for traveling hobos alive in a train car. Boy Charles and the hobos became ghosts and avenged themselves on white bullies. The piano went to Boy Charles’ wife, Mama Ola, and when she died, she passed it on to both her children.

Berniece is being courted by a preacher named Avery, but she won’t give him the time of day. Lymon gets through her rough nature, however, and it causes him to have doubts about Boy Willie’s plans to steal the piano from her since she won’t willingly give it to him. As Boy Willie and Lymon try to move the piano, they encounter Sutter’s ghost, who has been haunting the space and the piano in particular, and Lymon and Boy Willie are thwarted in their plans. They determine that the only way to be able to do anything at all with the piano and to be able to live in the house, they must perform an exorcism. They call the preacher Avery to come perform the exorcism, and the ghost Sutter appears. Boy Willie starts to attack the ghost, but nothing is working. Everyone is losing. In desperation, Berniece decides to try to exorcise the ghost through playing the piano. She starts playing the piano, and it summons her ancestors who are carved into its wood; they attack Sutter’s ghost and it flees.

Having played the piano, Berniece has a change of heart about it and the history it holds, believing even more strongly that it cannot be sold, but must be allowed to be a living representation of their family history and ancestry. Boy Willie finally accepts that he will not be able to sell the piano, and he leaves the house.

Discussion of Work
In retelling and centering a marginalized black history, August Wilson seeks to show the importance of family heritage and family history as a powerful form of resistance to white oppression. The piano itself is the living embodiment of that history, housing the spirits and images of the family genealogical line from Africa forward to when Boy Willie carved the piano. Since Voudon so strongly relies on knowing one’s ancestors in order to retain balance and peace between the worlds of the living and the dead, the piano, when not played, becomes a forgotten artifact, and therefore a forgotten family. The imbalance leads to the struggles that Berniece and her brother, Boy Willie, have in their lives.

The effects of slavery are very apparent generations down the family line. Many men, promised 40 acres and a mule to be able to work their land with, never had that dream realized when they were emancipated. Boy Willie’s desire to sell the piano for that land then becomes rooted in the historical significance and economic power of black people holding land as reparations for centuries of enslavement. Yet the sale is not just of a piano, but a selling of family history and legacy, something that even not fully understood or appreciated, Berniece cannot let him do. The conflict is then set up as more than just the sale of a piano, but the conflict of remembering family heritage and yet still finding ways to move forward and succeed. This conflict is embodied in Sutter’s ghost, who haunts the space. Sutter, the ghost of white supremacy, oppression, and ownership, cannot be ousted until the family heritage is claimed, and a selling of the piano is simply a strengthening of Sutter’s ghost, because it allows him ownership over the family once again by owning the family spirits and genealogy. As long as the piano stays in the hands of the black family, no one owns them; they are free from ownership in death.

The imbalance is corrected upon the physical use of the piano, a release of all the cultural and family heritage and knowledge upon the white oppressor. The music coming from Berniece’s piano playing, much like the blues, carries with it all of the knowledge of survival and living that are necessary to avoid a second enslavement. Berniece accepts her role as matriarch of the family at the point she starts playing the piano; she becomes the family griot that holds the authority of the family line. Boy Willie recognizes this change in her, and while he still dreams of economic success through land ownership, he comes to recognize how important Berniece’s role of preservation is to their family line.