Week 4 – Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (notes)
- Largest cast of any Wilson play so far. 12 counting the ever-present Joe Turner, 15 with appearance of Miss Mabel, plus the unseen Eugene, plus Jack Carper.
- Said to be Wilson’s favorite play in the cycle. Based on Romare Bearden painting, Mill Hand’s Lunch Bucket.
- Herald Loomis is the Wilson Warrior, but Bynum and Bertha play significant supporting roles.
Themes that recur:
- Blood as a means of cleansing, baptism, lifting the veil
- Finding one’s song is finding one’s voice, discovering a sense and practice of agency
- The relationship between Bynum’s Shiny Man, called One Who Goes before and Shows the Way, a sort of First Man, and Loomis’s first name, Herald, i.e., a messenger, a sign that something is about to happen. A play on words.
- Selig, the white “trader.” Buys and sells pots (sustenance, basic necessity) and finds lost people (only because he carried them away in the first place). WD Fard. (Martha started at the Holly house and was carried away by Selig. That is why Loomis said he could smell her there and knew she wasn’t dead)
- Bynum’s (Bind them) spirituality helps people, but still doesn’t give him his song completely, until he witnesses the return of the Shiny Man who self-baptizes, self-realizes, self-actualizes, and self-transcends (to use Maslow’s framework).
5. Play Structure
- Exposition: Scene 1: the boardinghouse; Bynum’s spirituality; Seth’s superiority complex; Selig, the trader
- Rising action: Arrival of Herald Loomis, Seth’s distrust.
- Climax #1: End of Scene 1. The Juba dance scene, Loomis’s disapproval and the performance of his own “act” within and via the old slave and minstrel celebration, aided by Bynum.
- Falling action: Seth’s growing distrust and decision to evict Loomis; the Mollie/Mattie/Jeremy love triangle.
- Resolution: Loomis fails to romance Mattie; future prospects for Reuben and Zonia; Loomis departs the House (but we feel him watching from a distance)
- Climax #2/Denouement: Martha Loomis returns to the House and reunites with Zonia; Loomis self-baptizes and self delivers; Bynum sees Shiny Man (in Loomis) and finds his agency at last.
TheatreWorks video on the play: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mIcxgAearDc
6. Explaining the end of the play.
It can be argued that the end of the play is a bit whacked, poorly constructed, or just plain flawed. I propose that taking such a position would be both inaccurate and incorrect. Of course, we would love to see Martha and Herald reunited and marching off into the sunset with their darling little girl, Zonia. But I contend that the play was never intended to be about Martha and Herald, but about Herald (the Wilson Warrior) and his development and, take a deep breath, about Bynum and his final fulfillment. Let me set the scene.
In Act 1 scene 1, Bynum told Selig, the trader and People Finder, about a man he was looking for, a Shiny Man he met on a road who once shared with him the Secret of Life. Bynum said the man asked for his hands, then rubbed Bynum’s hands between his own hands that had blood on them and said the blood was a way of cleaning himself. Soon the road changed, the surroundings changed and “everything look[ed] like it was twice as big as it was.” The cleaning with blood was clearly also a type of enlightenment, a baptism of sorts, preparing Bynum for a future task. During the same experience, Bynum saw his father, who told him he would show him how to “find my song,” and explained that the Shiny Man Bynum had earlier seen was “the One Who Goes Before and Shows the Way and that
“Said there was lots of shiny men and if I ever saw one again before I died then I would know that my song had been accepted and worked its full power and I could lay down and die a happy man. A man who done left his mark on life.”
OK. Hold on to that thought . . .
Skipping forward to the end of Act 1 scene 4, the House folks have come together on a Sunday evening after dinner to do a Juba, a minstrel/African cultural celebration that involves dancing, singing, and invoking the Holy Spirit. Everybody is there and participating except Herald. When Herald arrives, he goes off the deep edge, questioning the existence of God and the Holy Ghost. He goes off into a bit of a other worldly experience, “dancing and speaking in tongues.” he then says,
“You all don’t know nothing about me. You don’t know what I done seen. Herald Loomis done seen some things he ain’t got words to tell you.”
Bynum comes to his aid, walks him through his exposition of the vision he has seen, learns about his vision, and walks him back from the edge, so to speak, and back to this world and sanity. We won’t go into the details of that vision here, but suffice it to say that elements of the vision are significant, the bones rising and walking on the water, the bones sinking all together all at once and forming a tidal wave that washes the bones, now clothed with flesh, black flesh, ashore, but still inanimate. Then a wind enters the bodies and brings them to life, and Herald Loomis is one of those bodies come to life, except at that point, unlike all the others, Loomis cannot stand up, or as he says it “My legs won’t stand up.” At that point, I think Bynum knew spiritually and at some level that he had found, at least potentially, his shiny man. But that more development would be required.
OK, moving forward to the end of Act 2 scene 5 (the stuff in the middle is not insignificant, but we can come back to it later if we have to), Martha returns to the House, Loomis returns, and Martha thanks Bynum for reuniting her with her daughter Zonia. Loomis takes offense at that and accuses Bynum of “binding” him to the road, to a life of wandering around and dissatisfaction. Bynum denies it, and at this point, Loomis draws his knife, followed by a type of call and response that tells us with finality there is not going to be a future with Martha and Loomis together. Their apartness has developed them into different people than they were before when they were together. AS Herald says, “Joe Turner’s come and gone.”
Then at the height of the exchange, Loomis draws the knife across his chest, drawing blood, then rubs that blood over his face, replicating, in some ways, the same blood cleaning and self-baptism that Bynum experienced in Act 1 with the original shiny man. Similarly, Loomis comes to a new awareness as a result of the blood baptism. Finally, he is standing and he proclaims “I am standing! My legs stood up! I’m standing now.”
This is the completion that Loomis sought. He bids Martha farewell, and Mattie rushes out to be at his side. The stage directions Wilson inserts here are pure poetry:
Having found his song,
the song of self-sufficiency,
fully resurrected, cleansed and given breath,
free from any encumbrance
other than the workings of his own heart
and the bonds of the flesh,
having accepted the responsibility
for his presence in the world,
he is free to soar above the environs
that weighed and pushed his spirit
into terrifying contractions.
At this point, Bynum realizes fully that Loomis is his shiny man, that his song has been accepted, and that he has lived a life of meaning.
So, Loomis is complete. He has Mattie at his side for his next journey. And Bynum can peacefully rest. Q.E.D.
Yes. I think Bynum is a central character, although Loomis is definitely and definitively the Wilson warrior in this play. We relate personally to whichever character we will and that is one of the human functions of all the dramatic arts, to engage the audience, one by one. But we also have to keep in mind the suggestion made in class, i.e., putting it mildly, that creative people are less focused on their audience and more focused on externalizing their creative impulse. I wrote a poem once, a sonnet, that I thought was exclusively focused on a somewhat complicated rhyming scheme, yet at the end, the whole poem had meaning for me (and perhaps, for any one else who read it), the rhyming scheme notwithstanding.
A friend the other day called my attention to a painting, The Choice of Hercules. The painting (could be a play or a poem) has four human characters, and people who gaze on the masterpiece are subliminally left to choose one to relate to (though forcing that choice may not have been the artistic intent of the painter, Carracci). It’s a bit of a tangent, but it is true, we can’t all be Hercules.
The Choice of Hercules (https://www.wga.hu/html_m/c/carracci/annibale/1/heracles.html)
Wilson is using his plays to build a history of a century, but he is also creating a mythology, and a philosophy. That is why these plays will last and last. And yes, he is developing a psychology, a code for human behavior, perhaps a universal code. It will be fascinating to see how it all unwinds in the remaining six plays.
More on the title. “Joe Turner” comes from an old blues song about a system of incarceration for emancipated blacks in Tennessee, generally on weak or flippant charges forcing them to work in plantations for a limited time. Joe Turner was the brother of Peter Turney, Tennessee Governor at the end of the 19th cenury. See more here: http://www.usprisonculture.com/blog/2010/11/28/they-tell-me-joe-turners-come-and-gone-music-prison-the-convict-lease-system/
Character guide (Wikipedia, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone)
Seth Holly– In his early fifties, Seth is owner of the boardinghouse and works as a craftsman.
Bertha Holly– Seth’s wife of 25 years and five years his junior, Bertha runs the boardinghouse. She does all the cooking and cleaning, later with the aid of Zonia.
Bynum Walker– A “conjure” man staying with the Holly’s at the boardinghouse, Bynum is in his sixties and is a freed slave from the south.
Rutherford Selig– The only white character in the play, Selig is a peddler who sells Seth’s goods. Known as the “People Finder”, Selig is from a family that first brought Africans across the Atlantic to become slaves. But now he unites people by recording the names and places of all the people he peddles to.
Jeremy Furlow– Another resident of the boardinghouse, Jeremy is a guitar-playing 25-year-old. He came to the North looking for a job and a way in life. He works construction, putting in the new road outside of town.
Herald Loomis– An odd man who dons an overcoat and hat in mid-August, Loomis is 32 and a displaced slave searching for his wife. He was forced to work for Joe Turner for seven years, which separated him from his wife and daughter. He works as a deacon for the Abundant Life Church and at times was possessed by spiritual beings.
Zonia Loomis– Herald’s daughter, Zonia is described as a tall and skinny 11-year-old.
Mattie Campbell– Mattie is a 25-year-old girl who is disappointed with her position in life and is looking for love.
Rueben Mercer– Rueben is the Holly’s next door neighbor and about Zonia’s age.
Molly Cunningham– Molly is a good looking young woman of 26 who is strong and independent.
Martha Pentecost– Loomis’ wife, Martha is about 28 and very religious and a member of the Evangelical church. She left the South and her daughter behind.
Joe Turner– While Turner does not make an actual appearance in the play, he is often referred to with the expectation that the audience is aware of who he is. Joe Turner, the brother of the governor of Tennessee, would kidnap black men and force them into labor on his chain gang for seven years.
postscript. Early 19 “teens”
“Like the previous decade, African-Americans continued to fight against racial injustice. Using various methods of protest–writing editorials, publishing news, literary and scholarly journals as well as organizing peaceful protests–African-Americans began to expose the ills of segregation not only to the United States, but the world.
According to U.S. Census data, African-Americans make up ten percent of the United States’ population.
The National Urban League (NUL) is established in New York City. The purpose of the Urban League was to help African-Americans find jobs and housing resources.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) established the first issue of Crisis. W.E.B. Du Bois becomes the monthly magazine’s first editor in chief.
Throughout the United States, local ordinances are established to segregate neighborhoods. Towns such as Baltimore, Dallas, Louisville, Norfolk, Oklahoma City, Richmond, Roanoke and St. Louis establish such ordinances separating African-American and white neighborhoods.
Kappa Alpha Psi, an African-American fraternity is established at Indiana University.
Omega Psi Phi is established at Howard University.
An estimated sixty-one African-Americans are lynched.
W.C. Handy publishes “Memphis Blues” in Memphis.
Claude McKay publishes two collections of poetry, Songs of Jamaica and Constab Ballads.
The 50th Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation is celebrated.
Delta Sigma Theta, an African-American sorority, is established at Howard University.
Woodrow Wilson’s administration establishes federal segregation. Across the United States, federal work environments, lunch areas, and restrooms are segregated.
African-American newspapers such as the California Eagle began campaigns to protest the portrayal of African-Americans in D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation. As a result of editorials and articles published in African-American newspapers, the film was banned in many communities throughout the United States.
The Apollo Theater is founded in New York City.
The Great Migration picks up steam as African-Americans leave the South for Northern cities.
The Oklahoma Grandfather Clause is overturned in Guinn v. the United States.
Carter G. Woodson establishes the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH). That same year, Woodson also publishes The Education of the Negro Prior to 1861.
The NAACP proclaims that Lift Every Voice and Sing is the African-American national anthem. The song was written and composed by two brothers, James Weldon and Rosamond Johnson.
Booker T. Washington dies.