The play is set in 2011, in a city of Northern black people and others who have been on the road and are transitioning to new lives as Jim Crow laws make life in the South even more unbearable for formerly enslaved people and their children. Diaspora and identity are important themes; roads and songs, frequently used metaphors. A major influence in this play is Romare Bearden, whose collage Mill Hand’s Lunch Bucket Wilson says gave him the idea for a play set in a boarding house. Wilson was awed by Bearden’s vision of “black life presented on its own terms, on a grand and epic scale, with all its richness.” Wilson himself lived in a boarding house at one point (and discovered the Bessie Smith recordings then) and Bearden, who was born in the South, moved with his family to New York but stayed with his grandparents summers and for some of high school in a boarding house they ran in Pittsburgh, where he later created a noted mural celebrating the city. Bearden was born in 1911, which might be one reason why Wilson chose that year in which to set the play. Sandra Shannon suggests he inspired the Reuben character in Joe Turner.
A little history that may inform the name of Rutherford Selig, the only white man in the play: Rutherford B Hayes removed troops protecting blacks in the South, after signing the Compromise of 1877, which actually enabled the Jim Crow laws. And the so-called Exodusters, a large group of former slaves, escaped the Deep South in droves for Kansas, beginning around 1879. We meet Rutherford Selig, a fugitive slave finder, like his father, (his grandfather ran slave ships, we’re told) who’s turned people finder after Emancipation; he finds he has a booming market for dustpans (reminiscent of those Exodusters and also of getting rid of the dust of the road).
Bert Williams, a famous black Vaudeville performer in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1910 and 1911, when the play is set, originally worked for a filmmaker named William Selig in a noted California minstrel show in the 1890s. Questions were raised strongly in the Negro community about whether his performances demeaned blacks, and Williams found himself apologetically explaining he had to make a living. Also, the name Selig derives from the German “happy or content”—and the Finder has been particularly adaptable in his ability to live contentedly off the sweat and pain of black Americans.
Chapter 37 of Ezekiel in the Bible tells of the vision of the dry bones in the valley coming to life with the breath of the Holy Spirit, reviving Israel, and resonates with Loomis’ vision of the bones in the waters—the countless slaves who died in transit (the middle passage) across the ocean from Africa come to mind—rising and coming to life after the great wave comes.
Also, Vachel Lindsay’s poem The Congo (1914) comes to mind, with its reference to a Juba session and to the “thigh-bone beating on a tin pan gong” in Africa—and makes me think about the Joe Turner Juba scene and about Seth’s trade, making pots and pans, and wonder if the allusion may be as intentional as the Rutherford Hayes one seems to be. There was and is, of course, great controversy about the legitimacy of Lindsay’s romantic and primitive portrayal of blacks (WEB DuBose and Joel Spingarn’s criticisms are particularly well-put) and his poem’s end that suggests Africans would all become Christianized and thus life on the dark continent made perfect. Wilson the poet would undoubtedly have know that poem as well as Lindsay’s The Modest Jazz Bird, praising the efforts of Black Americans in World War I, and reached his own conclusions about Lindsay.
I think, in fact, one of Wilson’s other important themes in Joe Turner is that not accommodating to, but rejecting Christianity in favor of their powerful African heritage is what helps displaced, abused and disenfranchised blacks like Herald Loomis, who was trained as a church deacon but chose finally to bathe in his own blood—a powerful personal baptism— to overcome his paralysis after the Juba awakened him to his own spiritual desolation. That blood is an ironic and powerful response to Martha’s plea he be washed in the blood of the lamb, but also evokes traditional primitive sacrifice, like Bynum’s pigeon blood, and the blood Bynum discovered when the shiny man rubbed his hands together before Bynum is able to find his father and his song. It is, ultimately, the blood of Loomis’ own authentic black individuality.
Bynum is told by the shiny man that rubbing his hands together will make him clean—as does the ritual washing in Islamic (and Jewish) tradition. Interestingly, Wilson told John Lahr in a 2001 New Yorker interview, that he himself washed his hands each time before he began to write—and he commented that in his writing he tried to tap into “the blood’s memory,” that “deepest part of yourself where the ancestors are talking.”
The shiny man, The One Who Goes Before, both references those ancestors and evokes the biblical Isaiah, describing God or Jesus saying “I will go before you and make the rough places smooth—“. Bynum says, about the song he got when the shiny man showed him his daddy, “That song helped me on the road. Made it smooth to where my footsteps didn’t bite back at me”—connecting himself with Loomis not only via the magic that tells him about Joe Turner and Johnstown, but also through the Scripture Loomis already knows. Feeding the man who has starved three days, as Bynum did, reminds me of the parable in which the righteous are told by Jesus that they fed him every time they fed the hungry or the poor. (And Jesus’ disciples remained with him three days without food). This amalgamation of African and Biblical spirituality was ultimately able to heal even a man whose “Mr. Jesus Christ is a great big old white man with a whip in one hand”. Bynum, magician or trickster, or spirit healer was able to orchestrate it, and his success gifted him with the vision he’d been waiting for and a fulfilled life. Not a bad gift for Wilson to wish, in retrospect, for a grandfather he never knew but imagined so powerfully in his poem about him.
Joe Turner, of course, was Joe Turney, the brother of the Tennessee governor who captured freed black men, claimed they’d committed crimes and impressed them into servitude through the convict lease system. The song had its own folk life, and Mississippi John Hurt was among those who did it justice. Interestingly, Big Joe Turner Jr., a famous black American “shout” blues singer, was also born in 1911, the year in which the play is set.
Houston A. Baker’s Long Black Song, a book of essays published in 1972 that expanded on a chapter in Richard Wright’s Uncle Tom’s Children with the same title, maintains that black culture’s richness comes from many sources—folk tales, trickster stories, etc. and that the culture must be read through the folklore of the people—it could be one of Wilson’s sources of the song metaphor, although that’s my conjecture.
As to Herald Loomis, a herald is, of course, a messenger, official, or harbinger of imminent change, this one trailing not the expected hellhounds but a daughter. Seth means son of Adam and his last name Holly traditionally represents Christ’s crown of thorns but also Druidic eternal life. Martha Pentecost’s name remembers the day of the descent of the Holy Spirit on the followers of Jesus, one of whom was Martha, who welcomed him to her home—representative of traditional Christianity. Loomis’ hat and long coat are mentioned several times by Seth and other characters and could be associated with Baron Samdhi (Baron Sunday in English) a Voodoo figure who also dressed in a long black coat and top hat, and who was said to stand on the brink between the living and the dead, called The Hat Man, who evoked fear like Seth’s uneasiness about Loomis.
Wilson’s mother Daisy, who died in 1983, was the daughter of Bynum and Belle Zona Cutler Wilson—we know where Bynum’s name comes from, and it would not surprise me to find that Zona inspires the Zonia choice for the young girl in the play. Since Joe Turner was first presented as a stage reading in 1984, it’s likely Wilson was rewriting it in 1983, when Wilson’s mother Daisy died, and the family references may have had particular significance for him at that time. The character Mattie, in the play, is presented as living at 1727 Bedford, Wilson’s actual childhood home address.
Zonia chants “Pullin the Skiff” a childhood dancing song later recorded by Alan Lomax—sung by Ora Dell Graham in the ‘40s, a young girl at the time Lomax recorded her.
Loomis “hangs around outside the church” but does not go in, certainly looking for Martha, but also remaining apart from the Christianity she represents, which seems to have lost meaning for him during his time on the convict gang. Bynum’s spell brings Martha and Zonia back together—he bound them when Martha sought him out when she first came to Pittsburgh after losing her daughter. The dialogues between Loomis and Bynum, and between Martha and Bynum, are contrapuntal—like musical chants or competing songs, and dramatize the conflict and pain Loomis is feeling, as well as the similarity and differences between Christianity and traditional beliefs, as the play rises to its climax. Loomis looks as “shiny as new money” as he stands, at the end, on his own two feet—new money represented the ostentatious wealth seen in some successful black entertainers like Bert Williams and personified a decade later in The Great Gatsby, but was also built by the recent amassing of fortunes—some of which were reaped from entrepreneurship or personal talent, or from the fruits of the new Industrial Revolution of the late 1800s; but others of which came from businesses which had profited because of slavery. The Liberty Head nickel was about to be retired in 2013 in favor of the buffalo coin with which we all grew up. It’s doubtful Wilson knew that when he was writing Joe Turner, but it does seem an ironically appropriate metaphor, considering the impact of Plessey Vs. Ferguson (1896), enshrining legalized segregation, over the following 60 years and beyond.
Spider in West African Ashanti folklore is know as Anansi, the cunning trickster who came to represent slave resistance and survival, and skill in communication and speech, which were said to enable a sense of continuity with their African culture for the slaves of the diaspora. Reuben labels Zonia “Spider” and says one day he’s going to find and marry her, a sweet and positive counterbalance to the adult story, sealed with a kiss that may hold promise for the future.