Joe Turner’s Come and Gone – the endgame

A few questions have arisen about the end of the play. Here are my notes from an earlier session:

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 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.

postscript.

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.

Screen Shot 2018-08-10 at 7.59.04 PM

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/

Marginalia on Joe Turner’s Come and Gone for 03252021

Session #5

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.

Session 1 notes

Session 2 notes

Session 3 notes

Session 4 notes

YouTube playlist

JTCG and Wilson’s 4 B’s

More later.

Postscript. 03262021.

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

  1. “Some things are worth taking the chance going to jail about.” In a conversation with Bertha and Jeremy.
  2. “People should be very clear about what they want fixed before seeking people to fix it.” Conversation with Mattie and Jeremy.
  3. “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.
  4. Spread the word about your salvation. Bynum conversation with Selig and Seth about the Shiny Man.
  5. “A woman is everything a man needs.” A man needs a woman to make something of himself. Bynum talk with Jeremy.
  6. “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

Letter #3 – Syllabus

Syllabus – August Wilson American Century Cycle
SG-685 – OLLI-AU. Spring 2021

Course Description
The study group will read and discuss one August Wilson play each week for ten weeks, completing the Century Cycle of ten plays. Each group member will be required to read each play at home and be prepared to contribute to a group discussion on what they have read. The goal of the course will not be to exhaustively discuss each play. Instead, each group member (including the group leader) will select a brief passage to read aloud to the class, followed by a brief, collaborative close read and discussion by the group.

Instructional Methods
The course uses collaborative group discussion and close reading of a passage selected by each group member.

Required Texts
Group members will be required to procure all the plays listed below. The first five plays are linked in the syllabus, others will have to be purchased or borrowed from the library. The complete set of plays in hardback is available on Amazon for $100-$160. Each play can be found separately in paperback for $6-10 each.

Additional Suggested Texts
Bigsby, Christopher. Editor. 2007. The Cambridge Companion to August Wilson.
Bryer, Jackson and Mary C. Hartig. 2006. Conversations with August Wilson.
Elkins, Marilyn. 1994. August Wilson, A Casebook.
Herrington, Joan. 2004. I Ain’t Sorry for Nothing I Done.
Nadal, Alan. 1994. May All Your Fences Have Gates: Essays on the drama of August Wilson.
Nadal, Alan. 2010. Completing the Twentieth-Century Cycle.
Nadal, Alan. 2018. The Theatre of August Wilson.
Shannon, Sandra and Dana Williams. 2004. August Wilson and Black Aesthetics.
Shannon, Sandra. 1995. The Dramatic Vision of August Wilson.
Snodgrass, Mary Ellen. 2004. August Wilson: A Literary Companion.
Temple, Riley Keene. 2017. Aunt Esters Children Redeemed.

Course Requirements
Class participation. Each study group member will be expected to contribute to each week’s discussion.

Week 1: March 4, 2021 – Jitney (1979)
Synopsis: Set in an unofficial taxi station threatened with demolition in 1977, Jitney explores the lives and relationships of drivers, highlighting conflicts between generations and different concepts of legacy and identity.
- Lahr New Yorker Interview, 2001. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2001/04/16/been-here-and-gone
- Suzan Lori-Parks Interview, 2005. https://www.americantheatre.org/2005/11/01/the-light-in-august-wilson-a-career-a-century-a-lifetime/
- Racist Roots of Urban Renewal. https://www.fastcompany.com/90155955/the-racist-roots-of-urban-renewal-and-how-it-made-cities-less-equal
- Full play pdf: https://augustwilsonstudygroup.files.wordpress.com/2018/02/jitney.pdf
- YouTube playlist: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL0Lvs-e_eIXZapfkM43eU0KVt5QWBxdlK

Week 2: March 11, 2021 – Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (1982)
Synopsis: Set in 1927 in a Chicago recording studio (the only cycle play not set in Pittsburgh), Ma Rainey examines racism in the history of black musicians and white producers, and the themes of art and religion.
- The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Walter Benjamin. https://web.mit.edu/allanmc/www/benjamin.pdf
- My blog post has lots of links: https://augustwilsonstudygroup.wordpress.com/2018/03/08/some-links-to-background-material-for-ma-raineys-black-bottom/ Ma Rainey film adaptation screenplay
- YouTube playlist: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL0Lvs-e_eIXb3E8p4pv7MmgNPoDUlqCB7

Week 3: March 18, 2021 – Fences (1984)
Synopsis: In 1957, Troy Maxson, a former Negro Baseball League player, is a bitter man in his 50s who works as a garbageman. His frustration and disappointments in life affect his wife Rose and son Cory.
- Freytag’s Pyramid Dramatic Structure article: https://www.clearvoice.com/blog/what-is-freytags-pyramid-dramatic-structure/
- Article on Negro Baseball leagues. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/16/sports/baseball/mlb-negro-leagues.html
- America’s Most Undefeated Playwright: https://theundefeated.com/features/august-wilson-is-americas-most-undefeated-playwright/
- YouTube playlist: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL0Lvs-e_eIXYPmItHweBOyfAwDJ-x1qwO
- Full play pdf: https://augustwilsonstudygroup.files.wordpress.com/2021/02/fences1.pdf

Week 4: March 25, 2021 – Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (1984)
Synopsis: Set in a Pittsburgh boardinghouse in 1911, the ensemble play includes characters who were former slaves and examines the residents’ experiences with racism and discrimination.
- Article on convict leasing programs: https://www.thoughtco.com/convict-leasing-4160457
- Romare Bearden: The Prevalence of Ritual – https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2018/09/06/the-prevalence-of-ritual-on-romare-beardens-projections/
- Maslow on Self-Transcendence. https://reasonandmeaning.com/2017/01/18/summary-of-maslow-on-self-transcendence/
- Full play pdf: https://wp.me/a4gJ6W-qe
- YouTube playlist: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL0Lvs-e_eIXaWJ0J5IXBUUpwoVe-klNmc

Week 5: April 1, 2021 – The Piano Lesson (1986)
Synopsis: Named after a painting by Romare Bearden, the play follows the Charles family in the Doaker Charles household. A brother and a sister have different ideas about what to do with their piano, a family heirloom. Sell it to purchase land their enslaved ancestors once toiled upon, or keep the piano, which includes carved depictions of two distant relatives.
- Exploring the Use of Myth and Mystical Practice in August Wilson’s Century Cycle – https://augustwilsonstudygroup.files.wordpress.com/2021/02/colloquium-presentation-3-april-20186.pdf
- Article on Parchment Prison/Farm – https://www.pbs.org/newshour/arts/inside-mississippis-notorious-parchman-prison
- Youtube playlist (includes film adaptation): https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL0Lvs-e_eIXYBNIkZcDVM0y_xff-c1zCi

Week 6: April 8, 2021 – Two Trains Running (1990)
Synopsis: Set in 1969, the play revolves around a restaurant in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, which has suffered a long economic decline. The restaurant owner, Memphis, worries what will happen when the city comes to claim the building through eminent domain. A young activist, Sterling, tries to organize protests and rallies that can help save the restaurant, but Memphis is not so supportive.
- Dear White People – Two Trains Running is Not About Race: http://phindie.com/11061-11061-dear-white-people-two-trains-running-is-not-about-race/
- August Wilson Life and Work Timeline: https://www.post-gazette.com/ae/theater-dance/2012/06/01/August-Wilson-s-Life-and-Work-A-timeline-1945-2005/stories/201206010268
- YouTube Playlist: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL0Lvs-e_eIXZOBWNf_EwGXjngVAQKrvbC

Week 7: April 15, 2021 – Seven Guitars (1995)
Synopsis: Set in Pittsburgh in 1948, blues singer Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton is newly freed from prison when he’s asked to sign a record deal after a song he recorded months before becomes a surprise hit. He struggles to right wrongs and make his way back to Chicago. Black manhood is a theme of the play and a rooster is used in to symbolize it.
- Aristotle Poetics, Parts 13-15 – https://gointothestory.blcklst.com/studying-aristotles-poetics-part-13-a-a-perfect-tragedy-2bced5e9ed3c
- A Short History of the Legend of Buddy Bolden – https://www.jazziz.com/a-short-history-of-the-legend-of-buddy-bolden/
- YouTube playlist: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL0Lvs-e_eIXYQzNGKFRhdwbLYZ1mz6hLK
- Educational guide and synopsis: https://wp.me/a4gJ6W-qu

Week 8: April 22, 2021 – King Hedley II (1991)
Synopsis: Set in Pittsburgh in 1985, an ex-con tries wants to support a family and aims to get the money to open a video store by selling stolen refrigerators. The play features some characters from Seven Guitars.
- The Function of the Chorus in Greek Drama article – http://krishaamer.com/function-chorus-greek-drama/
- YouTube playlist: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL0Lvs-e_eIXaqsHCCMTcpz7qemeLe19xv
- Curriculum guide and synopsis: https://augustwilsonstudygroup.files.wordpress.com/2021/02/king-hedley.pdf

Week 9: April 29, 2021 – Gem of the Ocean (2003)
Synopsis: Set in Pittsburgh in 1904, the play features a man whose small crime has had deadly consequences for another man. Feeling guilty, he comes seeking the spiritual healing of Aunt Ester. A recurring character in Wilson’s plays, Ester claims to be 285 years old and is the kind matriarch of her household in Pittsburgh.
- August Wilson in the “City That Encourages Dreams”. https://augustwilsonstudygroup.files.wordpress.com/2021/02/project_muse_588846.pdf
- Prologue: definition and examples – https://literarydevices.net/prologue/
- Baraka: Columbia the Gem of the Ocean – https://augustwilsonstudygroup.files.wordpress.com/2021/02/baraka-gem-of-the-ocean.pdf
- YouTube playlist: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL0Lvs-e_eIXbpLBU1gTGwfhRV207HTXPb
- City of Dry Bones sermon: https://augustwilsonstudygroup.files.wordpress.com/2021/02/city-of-bones.pdf

Week 10: May 6, 2021 – Radio Golf (2005)
Synopsis: Set in 1990 Pittsburgh, this play concluded Wilson’s Century Cycle and is the last play he completed before his death. The home of Aunt Ester is threatened with demolition that will make way for real estate development in the depressed area. Investors include Harmond Wilks, who wants to increase his chance of becoming the city’s first black mayor. History and legacy challenge personal aspirations and ideas of progress.
- Radio Golf Student Guide: https://augustwilsonstudygroup.files.wordpress.com/2021/02/radio-golf-student-guide.pdf
- The Ground On Which I stand: https://augustwilsonstudygroup.files.wordpress.com/2021/02/the-ground-on-which-i-stand.docx
- Alan Nadal, The Theatre of August Wilson, Chapter 9: https://augustwilsonstudygroup.files.wordpress.com/2021/02/chapter_9_the_century_that_cant_fix_nothing_with_the_law_radio_golf.pdf
- YouTube playlist: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL0Lvs-e_eIXbZDGZ3NZTVicN5q755bnrd

Week 11: May 13, 2021. Wrap-ups (TBD)

A few random thoughts on Joe Turner’s Come and Gone 03.15.2020

Like Gem of the Ocean, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (JTCG) begins with a statement, except it is more like a scene setter than a prologue. And in similarity to Gem’s allusion to the Tuesday divinity in the Yoruba religion, Ogun, JTCG opens with a subtle yet direct hymn to the deity, Ogun, also known as the God of Iron, with repeated references to steel, steel mills, and the steel-like nature of the human soul, malleable, shapable, adaptable. As such, JTCG is a tragedy, a near-Greek tragedy, with a character, Herald Loomis, who is brought to total destruction and ruin, almost, nearly. And the scene setter is a sort of Greek chorus, almost. Yet Loomis survives, and is redeemed and transformed, more in keeping with Judeo-Christian tragedy. We will continue to track these traces of Greek, Judeo-Christian, AND Yoruba dramatic elements as we proceed through the cycle.


All the literature on JTCG mention as a central theme in the play the false promise of emancipation. Loomis gets caught up in the system of peonage, a type of court-sanctioned return to slavery. Without committing any crime, he gets swept away and forced to do hard labor for seven years in a kidnapping/sharecropping system that basically prolonged involuntary servitude. So much for emancipation. Upon completion of his term, he seeks to regather the far flung pieces of his life. An incredible challenge awaits him as he seeks to reunite his family.


The boarding house run by Seth and Bertha is slightly reminiscent of Hope’s bar in Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh. The two plays get compared from time to time, but the similarity is only superficial (the name, Joe Mott, a character from Iceman, does show up in Radio Golf, the final play in the cycle). Yet, each resident has his or her story, the individual plot lines intersect or intertwine at times, and each resident benefits from the experiences of every other resident. And every resident, though temporary, is a part of the great migration North after emancipation. In that regard, the house is a sort of archeion, housing the records and data, through human stories, narratives, and lived lives, of the Great Migration.


I noticed an interplay of the words “bind,” “bound,” and “bond.” Bynum “binds” together those who cling. Jeremy gets his “bond” paid when he is thrown into jail for public drunkenness. And “bound” is the past participle of bind, an action completed in the past, but also related to “bondage,” which is how characters refer to the period of enslavement. In a possible connection to Wilson’s brief experiment with the Islamic religion, the first revelation in the Holy Qur’an, A Clot of Blood, is also translated as “a clinging thing,” in reference to the clot of congealed blood that becomes an embryo and illustrates humankind’s humble origin. But that may be a stretch!


Loomis, though formerly a church deacon, has decidedly rejected traditional religious faith. At the end of both Act 1 (Holy Ghost) and Act 2 (Jesus) Loomis demonstrates his disdain for Christian faith and beliefs. It’s almost like two bookends and it is almost as if Wilson wants to send this message in a very strong way.


Early in the play Bynum references the cleansing power of blood and bleeding and Herald Loomis makes a similar reference at the end of the play. A cleansing ritual. Again, bookends almost. I don’t know what it means beyond the Christian representation of communion and the imbibing of Jesus’ blood and his flesh in a sacred ritual. But I do know Wilson included it and placed it where he did, twice, for a reason.


Finally, just a note on Romare Bearden, whose painting, Mill Hand’s Lunch Bucket, was a piece in The Prevalence of Ritual exhibition that provided Wilson the inspiration for JTCG. Here is the image:

Mill Hand’s Lunch Bucket

Wilson wrote, in the Foreword to Myron Schwartzmann’s “Romare: His Life and Art,”

“My friend Claude Purdy had purchased a copy of The Prevalence of Ritual, and one night, in the Fall of 1977, after dinner and much talk, he laid it open on the table before me. “Look at this,” he said. “Look at this.” The book lay open on the table. I looked. What for me had been so difficult, Bearden made seem so simple, so easy. What I saw was black life presented on its own terms, on a grand and epic scale, with all its richness and fullness, in a language that was vibrant and which, made attendant to everyday life, ennobled it, affirmed its value, and exalted its presence. It was the art of a large and generous spirit that defined not only the character of black American life, but also its conscience. I don’t recall what I said as I looked at it. My response was visceral. I was looking at myself in ways I hadn’t thought of before and have never ceased to think of since.”

Session 1 notes

Session 2 notes

Session 3 notes

JTCG and Wilson’s 4 B’s

p.s. How did I leave out Wilson’s memorialization of the 23rd Psalm in the final scene, as Martha Loomis (now Pentecost) recites it trying unsuccessfully talk down her husband, Herald, from hurting someone with the knife he has drawn. Luckily, Bynum helps Loomis back down on his own in a way that is reminiscent of Toledo’s description of “African conceptualization” in Ma Rainey (next week) and Berneatha’s calling on the ancestor spirits in Piano Lesson (two weeks hence).

Addendum: 3/22/2020. Two characters from GEM reappear or are mentioned. Selig, the pot seller and people finder shows up in both. Still trying to figure out the bid deal about dustpans. I heard a story once about how, in the slave quarters, they would use brooms to sweep the ground down to a hard surface to prevent the growth of weeds and that it kept rats away. Maybe that practice migrated North.

Rev. Tolliver is another name that repeats, performing the funeral for Garret Brown in GEM, and leading the congregation in its move North in JTCG.

March 2 start of the August Wilson American Century Cycle at OLLI-dc.org

We are three weeks and change away from the start of the 4th session of the August Wilson American Century Cycle study group in the spring semester of the OLLI program at American University. And another two weeks away from the biennial August Wilson Society Colloquium in Pittsburgh, March 12-15. It all runs together in terms of preparation work and I am so excited about it all!