27 pages 54 minutes read

August Wilson

Joe Turner's Come and Gone

Fiction | Play | Adult | Published in 1988

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Summary and Study Guide


Joe Turner’s Come and Gone is the third in a series of plays August Wilson wrote examining the African-American experience in the twentieth century. The play is set in Pittsburgh in 1911 against the historical backdrop of the “Great Migration” of African-Americans leaving the poverty and Jim Crow laws of the American South for employment and better lives in the manufacturing cities of the North. The play takes place in the boarding house run by Seth and Bertha Holly, inherited from Seth’s father, a Northern free man.


The play begins with Seth watching Bynum, a boarder, performing a sacrificial ritual with a pigeon in the yard. Seth is awaiting his weekly visit from the white Rutherford Selig. Seth buys metal from him to make pots and pans that he then sells to Selig the following week. Seth has ambitions to start a small businessbut is stymied by his inability to obtain financing. The only loan he was offered required his house as collateral, a condition Seth refused as too risky. Bynum has paid Selig to find the “shiny man.” Selig presses for more details, and Bynum recounts the mystical experience in which he met the shiny man. Bynum’s father appeared and led Bynum to his song, which has the power to bind people together.


Jeremy Furlow, a young boarder, returns having spent the night in jail. Seth warns Jeremy that he will not tolerate disreputable behavior. Bynum suggests that Jeremy enter a guitar contest, but Jeremy resists based on a previous exploitative experience. Jeremy asks about meeting women and makes it clear that he doesn’t want a desperate, clingy one. Mattie Campbell comes looking for Bynum, who she has heard can bring her man back. Bynum urges her to start letting go until she eventually forgets him. Jeremy and Mattie cross in the doorway and make plans for a date.


Harold Loomis arrives with his young daughter, Zonia, looking for a room. Harold is searching for his wife, Martha. Bynum refers him to Selig.Seth, wary of Harold’s agitated demeanor, believes he knows the wife as Martha Pentecost, based on her resemblance to Zonia, but prefers to mind his own business.


The following week Seth and Bertha determine that Martha had come there looking for Bynum four years ago, and rented a room, moving out last year to follow the church to a different town. Selig enters and completes his weekly transaction with Seth. Loomis pays Selig to find Martha.


The next day Jeremy invites Mattie Campbell to move in with him. Bynum introduces Harold to Selig who pays him to find Martha. Molly Cunningham enters looking for a room. Jeremy is visibly smitten with her. 


That evening, Seth, Bertha, and all their boarders, except Loomis, are engaged in a Juba, a type of African song and dance. Loomis enters shouting at them to stop. Loomis is paralyzed by a vision that Bynum coaxes him to reveal. Loomis describes a hallucination he has of bones rising out of and then walking on top of the water. The bones then sink, creating a big wave that washes up on land where the bones return to the flesh of African-Americans. Loomis is lying on the shore with the bodies but can’t get up and walk. Bynum exhorts him to get up and walk, but Loomis can’t and collapses.


The next morning Seth tells Loomis to leave because of his behavior the night before. Loomis reminds him that he has paid through Saturday, so Seth allows him to stay until then. Molly states that she doesn’t do other people’s work and asks Mattie why she’s working if she has Jeremy. Molly tells her that she doesn’t trust men. Mattie leaves and Jeremy enters, reporting that he was fired from his job for refusing to pay the white man. Jeremy rails against the exploitation of the black workers. Seth urges him to be practical and think about the money. Jeremy replies that he will take his guitar on the road and find another situation. Seth leaves and Jeremy starts flirting with Molly and convinces her to leave with him.


Later that day, Bynum is singing about Joe Turner, the song in the play’s title, sung by African-American women about a white man who illegally enslaves their men. Harold tells Bynum he doesn’t like that song and Seth warns him against making more trouble. Bynum draws Harold out by asking him about his past. Harold defensively asks Bynum how he knows what he has done. Bynum replies that he learned from his father how to assess people. Loomis reveals that Joe Turner kidnapped him after Zonia was born and held him for seven years. While he was imprisoned, his wife Martha left Zonia with her mother and went North. He and his daughter have been searching for her for the last four years.


The next morning Bertha advises Mattie to forget about Jeremy. Loomis makes an awkward pass at Mattie but is unable to follow through. The following day, Zonia plays in the yard with the neighborhood boy, Reuben, and talks about searching for her mother. Reuben tells Zonia that the ghost of Seth’s mother warned him to honor Eugene’s wishes to free his pigeons.


On Saturday morning Martha Pentecost arrives just in time to catch Zonia and Loomis. She tells Loomis how hard her life was after Joe Turner kidnapped him and how eventually she had to go on with her life. Loomis tells Zonia to go with her mother. Martha thanks Bynum and Loomis become angry, blaming Bynum for his predicament. While Martha recites the Psalms, Loomis mocks her religion. He pulls a knife and cuts himself across the chest, rubbing his face with blood. Mattie runs out after Loomis. Bynum realizes Loomis is his “shiny man.”