Joe Turner’s Come and Gone Summary

August Wilson

Joe Turner’s Come and Gone

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Joe Turner’s Come and Gone Summary

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The play Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, set in the 1910s, opens in Seth Holly’s boardinghouse. Seth and his wife, Bertha, are in the kitchen watching Bynum, a freed slave and “conjure man” in his 60s, in the backyard. Seth complains to his wife about the old man’s strange spiritual rituals and practices, but Bertha explains he is not hurting anyone, so Seth should just leave him alone. They also discuss another of their boarders, Jeremy, who was arrested the night before for public drunkenness.

Seth is concerned about the plight of freed slaves and the hardships they face when they move north. He worries that all the jobs they were promised in the North will be taken by poor whites.

Rutherford Selig arrives on the scene. He is the play’s only white character. Selig makes a living peddling goods that Seth makes, items like pots and pans, and he’s come looking for some dustpans. Selig’s family was once involved in the slave trade, but now, Selig is what he calls a “People Finder.” He helps reunite people by writing down the names of everyone he sells to.

Bynum asks Selig about a shiny man that he had paid to have found. Selig needs a better description. Bynum had experienced a spiritual event with this man, and saw the ghost of his dead father telling him to find his song in life. This strange man gave Bynum the power to bring people together through the Binding Song. Selig leaves.

Jeremy returns and claims the white police arrested him so they could steal money from him.

Herald Loomis, a 32-year-old former slave, and his daughter, Zonia, enter. They rent a room from the boardinghouse. Herald is searching for his wife, Martha, and Bynum suggests he talk to Selig on his next Saturday visit. Seth takes Herald to his room.

Jeremy discusses his guitar-playing skills and how he is wary of playing for white men or for money because of a bad experience. Bynum suggests Jeremy go down to a bar and play for some money. Seth tells Bynum and Bertha that he does not trust Loomis; he thinks Loomis is a “mean looking” man, and he is reluctant to help him find his wife because of it.

Seth returns and remarks that Loomis must be looking for Martha Pentecost. He makes the connection because Zonia resembles the woman.

Mattie Campbell enters. She is 25-years-old and unhappy with her situation—especially her love life. She is looking for Bynum because she’s heard he can fix things. She wants Bynum to bind her to her old boyfriend, Jack Carper, who has left her. Bynum explains that he can only bind people that want to be bound, so she is better off just letting him find his own direction in life. Bynum does give her a good luck charm to place under her bed, though. Jeremy suggests Mattie should stay with him, as a cure for the loneliness both of them are feeling, and he asks her out. She reluctantly agrees to the date.

Out in the yard, Zonia meets Reuben, the young boy who lives next door. She explains to him that they are looking for her mother who ran away after a man named Joe Turner did something to her father. Reuben tells of his friend, Eugene, who died. Reuben keeps Eugene’s pigeons and sells them to Bynum for use in his Africa rituals.

A week later, Seth and Bertha are eating breakfast in the boardinghouse kitchen. Seth is still worried about Loomis. Something about the look of the man does not feel right. He thinks Loomis might be a thief. Bertha encourages him to give Loomis the benefit of the doubt. Seth continues to think that he knows the location of Loomis’s wife, but will not tell him because he is worried about what will happen once Loomis finds her.

Selig makes his weekly visit to the boardinghouse to collect the dustpans from Seth. Loomis pays him to try to find his wife because Bynum tells him that Selig is the People Finder. After Selig leaves, Bertha explains that Bynum can only find people who have hitched to his wagon, but Loomis is confident in Bynum’s ability.

The next day, Seth and Bertha are in the kitchen, where Seth explains his disappointment over being unable to find someone who will lend him money for a new factory to make his goods.

Bynum and Jeremy discuss love. All a man needs to be happy is a woman.

Molly Cunningham enters. She is young and attractive, and her appearance gets Jeremy’s attention. She has missed her train and needs a place to stay.

Later that day, the boarders are all sitting around the table eating dinner. Seth suggests they perform the juba, an African dance. Seth plays a song on the harmonica. Loomis enters and interrupts the group’s dancing, then collapses onto the floor, speaking in tongues. Loomis hallucinates, and Bynum takes him upstairs.

The next morning, Seth tries to kick out Loomis. Loomis was, says Seth, drunk when he had his episode the previous night. Seth gives Loomis a week to leave.

Bynum, Molly, and Mattie are in the kitchen, talking about how children often become like their parents. Mattie heads to work. Molly says that she will never have a job, and sees no need for either men or children. Jeremy arrives, and explains that he has lost his job because he refused to pay a white man’s extortion. Seth accosts Jeremy for what he sees as a foolish decision. Molly believes Jeremy could get his job back, if he would only ask. Jeremy asks her to leave with him, and Molly agrees, so long as they don’t go south.

Monday night, Bynum and Seth play dominoes. Bynum begins to sing the song “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.” Loomis enters and demands that Bynum stop. Bynum tells Loomis that he knows it was Joe Turner who enslaved him. For Loomis to get his life back, he needs to regain his song. Loomis recounts the story of his enslavement on Joe Turner’s chain gang, and how only the memories of his wife and child kept him alive. Loomis remains skeptical of Bynum’s magical abilities, however.

Bertha and Mattie are together talking. Bertha tells Mattie that she can find everything she wants and needs, if only she is a little patient. Loomis enters and tells Mattie that he has noticed her. Loomis tries to touch Mattie, but she recoils awkwardly.

The next morning finds Zonia and Reuben in the yard again. Reuben explains that the ghost of Seth’s mother has directed him to release Eugene’s pigeons. Reuben asks Zonia if he can kiss her on the lips, and she agrees. The two decide to find each other later in life.

The final scene of the play finds Loomis and Zonia leaving the boardinghouse on Saturday. Bertha tells Mattie that all she needs is love, a declaration that sets everyone to laughing.

Selig arrives with Martha Pentecost in tow. Martha is Loomis’s long-lost wife. Loomis and Martha talk, and Loomis gives Zonia back to her mother.

Martha tells Loomis he should look to Jesus for salvation. Herald rejects Christianity, however, and explains that Jesus has done nothing for him but bring him pain. Martha tells him that the blood of the lamb will make him clean.

At that, Herald slashes himself across the chest with his knife, then wipes his own blood on his face. The stage directions for the play make his transformation clear: “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 own presence in the world, he is free to soar above the environs that weighed and pushed his spirit into terrifying contractions.” Mattie rushes after Loomis, and Bynum calls out to Loomis, saying that he is shining like a new coin.

Concepts of identity and spirituality weave themselves throughout the play. Bynum is often performing rituals, and through these rituals, people search for themselves and their life’s calling. This is best represented by the song—both the songs that the characters sing and the metaphorical songs the characters need to “find.”

Identity is largely influenced by the characters’ race. The history of enslavement weighs heavily on all the characters and determines in large part their lot in life. Spirituality can help free them, however, as the characters make their way looking for their songs.