Romulus Linney, who wrote the forward to the boxed version of Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (JTCG), has roots in North Carolina, which explains why Appalachian State University has his personal papers. And good on the Mountaineers for using Omeka to make items digitally available (says the archivist in me). August Wilson also has North Carolina roots. The legend goes that his mother and his grandmother walked to Pittsburgh from their small town in North Carolina. Romare Bearden also has roots in North Carolina. It is also not giving anything away to mention that Aunt Ester’s bill of sale in GOTO was issued in Guilford County, NC, my own birthplace.
Linney wore 85 plays. He knows something about playwriting. He writes in the Foreword to JTCG,
“A creator expressing love in art is treacherous business. Love is easy to overdo. It can be well-meaning but amateurish. It must be disciplined by honesty and truth. Here a great writer shows us how it is done. He sets excitement aside. His characters and his audiences live for a while in that calm, unpretentious affection that we, poor humans, at our best, can have for one another. This is not thrilling action. It is life at its most beautiful.”
Below is an excerpt of a letter Wilson wrote to Linney (courtesy of ASU Archives):
In an earlier session, I refer to Wilson’s The Play as a Yoruba Hymn to Ogun, god of iron and steel. A recording of the text: https://soundcloud.com/raymmax/joe-turner-the-play-1 (for educational purposes only).
What follows is a harvesting of marginalia from successive reads of the play.
Bynum is a Stoic, like Troy. Stoicism gets an unfair rap because it was contemporary with the early days of Christianity and historians present the two was a binary choice. It is Bynum’s Stoicism that Seth is attracted to, his independence of mind and his indifference to external appearances. Troy had the same or a similar way of looking at things, i.e. “you’ve got to take the crooked with the straights.”
Seth is a craftsman, a maker of things with his hands. He is at least a second generation free man and a property owner, though he finds himself and his productivity hemmed in by distribution and banking systems. Seth doesn’t trust Loomis, but he tolerates Bynum because he feels Bynum is too old to be a threat. Speaking of Bynum, whenever he speaks, check out who is in the room and who might be within ear range. Bynum speaks on multiple levels.
Bynum’s Shiney Man is a prototype of John the Baptist, I.e. going before and showing the way. See the Da Vinci painting, Virgin of the Rocks, in my Jitney post. The Shiney Man self-baptizes with his own blood, transformational through his own sense of agency. Bynum pays Selig a dollar to find his Shiney Man, but he knows that is just pro forma – Bynum has to find him on his own. Selig, now that he is mentioned, and drawing from Wilson’s Black Muslim exposure, reminds of W.D. Fard, the mystery man who sold pots and pans door to door in Detroit as he propagated a new religion. Selig isn’t selling religion with his pots and pans, but he is selling faith, a hope that people will someday be reunited with family they have lost in the transition from bondage to freedom. After emancipation, many freed former slaves scoured the southern states looking for daily members who had been sold away during bondage. Churches formed homecoming celebrations during the summer for folks to returned who fled during the Great Migration. HBCU’s still observe “homecoming” for alumni to return. Family reunions are part of the same impulse to “help me find my people.”
Reuben promised Eugene he would free his pigeons when Eugene died. Eugene died, but Reuben kept his pigeons in captivity, maintaining them to sell to Bynum for his ritual animal sacrifices. Might this be a metaphor for slaveowners who put it in their wills to free their enslaved workers upon their death? But the families refused to honor the last will request, keeping the people enslaved forever just like Reuben keeps the pigeons, in order to “remember Eugene by.”
Jeremy, recently immigrated from NC, goes after all the girls. He even breaks the top rule: never date two girls who live in the same house. Jeremy gets picked up and thrown into jail on the weekends. With his drinking and hanging out at clubs to play his guitar he is trouble. Jeremy knows a good line when he hears one – he repeats Bynum’s line about berries and water to Molly C.
Read carefully the dialogue between Bynum and Herald Loomis at the end of Act 1. What readers refer to as a cathartic “call and response” may be more accurately described as a conversation between a psychotherapist and his patient. Compare it to the conversation between Bynum, Seth and Selig in Scene 1 when Bynum first tells us about his Shiney Man. Bynum’s father was also a mystic and a healer so this is the family business just as it was with Selig’s father and grandfather’s people-finding service.
There is obvious chemistry between Mattie and Herald, even before their first collision. Both are lost in love, but not defeated, and both still see the possibility of a relationship in the future. The junior romance between Reuben and Zonia is as sweet as the day is long.
Samuel A. Hay, in his essay Joe Turner’s Come and Gone in The Cambridge Companion to August Wilson, outlines seven principles Bynum advocated with various members of the boardinghouse. Hay calls them Bynum’s seven priniciples
- “Some things are worth taking the chance going to jail about.” In a conversation with Bertha and Jeremy.
- “People should be very clear about what they want fixed before seeking people to fix it.” Conversation with Mattie and Jeremy.
- “Then both of you be lost and trapped outside of life and ain’t no way for you to get back to it.” If a person is in he wrong place with the wrong person, then both people are lost. Conversation with Mattie and Jeremy.
- Spread the word about your salvation. Bynum conversation with Selig and Seth about the Shiny Man.
- “A woman is everything a man needs.” A man needs a woman to make something of himself. Bynum talk with Jeremy.
- “I ain’t bind you, Herald Loomis. You can’t bind what don’t cling.” Nobody can bind you to anything you don’t cling to. Bynum talking with Martha and Herald.
Hay also cites the Nigerian playwright Soyinka and makes references to the Igbo tradition in Nigeria and the Akan tradition in Ghana as sources for interpreting both Bynum and events in the play that seem supernatural. Other references have been made to the Yoruba tradition in explaining August Wilson. His influences are a rich genetic pool.
In our group discussion we talked about references to shoes in the play. Bynum knows Loomis is not a gambler because he wears clodhoppers, not nice shoes. And the place where the migrant congregation, including Martha, built a new church used to be Wolf’s shoe store. In “the meaning of Shoes, Giorgio Riello writes,
Footwear is more than a simple wrapping or protection for the foot. The notion that shoes indicate a great deal about a person’s taste (or disdain for such things) and identity – national, regional, professional – class status and gender, is not an invention of modernity. Shoes have, for centuries, given hints about a person’s character, social and cultural place, even sexual preference.1 Shoes are powerful “things”, as they take control over the physical and human space in which we live. They allow us to move in and experience the environment. They are the principle intersection between body and physical space. The psychologist Nicola Squicciarino has called this “extensions on the corporeal ego.” Shoes, then, are always more than simple garments allowing us to walk, stroll and run on streets, parks and fields. They are tools that amplify our bodies’ capacities. Everyday shoes allow us to walk to work, to run for the bus, to look smart at a party. High-tech shoes have permitted the demonstrable improvement of the world record for the 100 meters during the last hundred years (in conjunction with training and nutritional regimes). Shoes thus extend our social and emotional capacities, as well as our physical capacity.
I emphasis this here because shoes as symbols comes up again and again in Wilson’s plays