This article was originally written by Lynell George for the program for the production of Joe Turner’s Come and Gone directed by Phylicia Rashad at the Mark Taper Forum in spring 2013. The below post is an excerpted version of the original article. Center Theatre Group's Los Angeles National Finalists of the August Wilson Monologue Competition will be performing on May 4 at the August Wilson Theatre on Broadway. To learn more about this program for high school students, click here.
“How did your Daddy heal people?
“With a Song.”
— Bynum from August Wilson's Joe Turner’s Come and Gone
By the 10th year of the 20th century, the United States was unified only in name — and even that was fragile. In the 45 years after the Civil War’s end in 1865, the outcome of that bloody battle had only nudged the country on a dim path, inching toward a new understanding of itself: a tenuous post-slavery experiment. Accordingly, for black Americans in particular — the actuality of their new caste would be slow to materialize both in words and in deeds.
Under this new flag called freedom, the violent season continued, both on Southern and Northern soil. Free black men and women — and what that designation meant — ignited debate and overall unrest on both sides of the Mason- Dixon line. The territory was so fraught by 1909, that an assembly of abolitionists, activists and clergy, both black and white, convened in New York City to try to quell the violence. Led by scholar and activist W.E.B. DuBois, the meeting laid the foundation for the formation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which would grow into the United States’ most prominent civil rights organization.
This is an anxious, middle-of-the night America, a rutted, uncertain, landscape where they are still locating their footing. They aren’t only struggling with where or when they enter, or where they can or cannot sit, but who they are inside. Set in 1911, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, by date the second of Wilson’s Century Cycle, sorts through the emotional legacy of slavery — displaced and often shattered families and the protracted damage done to the collective soul.
A haunt-eyed wanderer, Harold Loomis appears with his young daughter in tow at the doorstep of Seth and Bertha Holly’s boarding house in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Loomis is looking for his wife, Martha, who vanished after he was swept upon a chain gang, “kidnapped” by Joe Turner. The legend of “Turner” cast a long shadow over the Deep South and beyond, and stemmed from history: Joe Turney (the brother of Tennessee governor, Peter Turney [1893-1897]), would sweep swaths through the South, rounding up blacks and forcing them to serve hard labor for small infractions.
The name “Joe Turner” represents both being and metaphor for this act of dismantling family — referencing the deep wound of slavery, but in a later iteration. “Joe Turner’s come and gone…,” a phrase used to explain a family member’s absence, which later evolved into an early blues song, told the world of loss and hurt in great poetic economy.
Loomis, swept up by Turner and sentenced, has emerged seven years later, dazed but determined to find what he believes is rightly his. He follows a faint trace of her trail North, along the path of the Great Migration, hoping to find his wife and rebuild his life. Just how, he isn’t quite certain.
The resurrection of the spirit amid the detritus of broken family, promises and souls, is the filament at the core of Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. Herald Loomis and his daughter, and the other itinerant men and women who pass through the Holly household with their suitcases and their small and lofty dreams, give voice to various threads of the African American journey toward not just a new place, but a new sense of themselves in this place, this next promise of America.
Where they go is as important as who they are becoming, counsels Wilson’s root doctor, Bynum Walker, who advises the troubled who ring the Holly’s kitchen table to “sing your song” — to find and embrace their purpose, their destiny. That “song” is crucial to each character’s sense of who they were and who they are becoming as they find their place in the world.
Wilson understood those songs — and the sorrow or joy or epiphanies embedded in them — as one of the most essential links to black America’s story. They were evidence of the journey passed down generation to generation. “My greatest influence has been the blues. And that’s a literary influence because I think the blues is the best literature that we as African Americans have,” Wilson told The Believer in 1997. As was jazz, which Wilson said he connected to much later, but certainly as deeply, “I think that that’s the core of black aesthetics, the ability to improvise enabled them to survive these outrageous insults.”
When W.E.B. DuBois looked back on those decades of post-Reconstruction tumult and the tenuous state of race matters, the evolution of the New Negro that Loomis embodies, he understood that African Americans stood at a crucial crossroads of enlightenment, “becoming aware of themselves, confident in their possibilities and determined by self assertion.” In this he saw — not too differently from Bynum the root doctor who preaches selfactualization — life’s complex spirit dance. Our collective inheritance is the act of remembering, of singing the songs of our mothers and fathers without muting our evidence of the journey, creating our own new chorus.