Argument Paper on August Wilson’s “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone”
In regard to August Wilson’s play, “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” many different ideas are put forward as to the theme of the story. Some say that it presents a dialogue on religious themes. This is because of the many religious elements incorporated into the scenes of the play. The most popular opinion, however, is that the play depicts African Americans’ search for their cultural identity after the confusion and displacement caused by the freeing of the slaves following the Civil War. This idea is based on the fact that the struggles of African Americans are a common theme in the other works of the playwright, August Wilson, and the different racial discrimination issues exemplified in the play. While both opinions have very valid points, this writer believes that the latter theme is a better analysis of the play. However, there are also very distinct spiritual elements in the play and cultural identity does not completely encompass every nuance in the story. Thus, the play is really best described by a composite of the two themes; “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” presents how the 20th century African Americans either employed or needed to employ their inherent religiousness, in the sense of being spiritual and not necessarily relating to a particular religion, to find their individual identities.
The idea of finding one’s identity is incorporated into most of every element of the plot in different ways. However, the fact that African Americans had great trouble realizing their identities after suddenly acquiring freedom and yet still facing discrimination and feeling alienated in one’s own country, made the lives of very different post-war African Americans the ideal backdrop on which to explore the different ideas about, and yet common search for, personal identity. Of course, it also helped that the tribulations that African Americans face in post-war America comprised Wilson’s niche. While these points are valid arguments as to why the play is based solely on African American issues and search for cultural identity, a search for identity in heritage does not explain the very personal searches that many characters undergo in the story.
Most of the different characters in the Holly boarding house are on a search for something, something that they believed would make them complete. Bynum Walker, while seemingly completely comfortable in his role as the mystical spirit man who is completely in touch with his African heritage, is seen in the story looking for who he called the “shining man.” While the search is not entirely active and does not consume him like the searches of the others do them, this shining man has played a great part in Bynum finding his own identity, symbolized by his song, the Binding Song, which he uses to bind people together. Mattie Campbell comes into the story seeking Bynum to get her man, Jack, to return to her. She believes that her identity is completed by these men, but as she herself is too dependent and too malleable, traits that Mattie probably developed as a slave, the men leave her, just like Jeremy dopes in Act 2, Scene 1. Jeremy Furlow, the 25 year old guitar player and ex-construction worker decides that all he needs is a good woman to love, that his identity would be completed by such a woman. At first, it seems as if he found this in Mattie, however, since Mattie had not herself found her identity, Jeremy ends up feeling stifled and thus runs away and travels with Molly. Molly Campbell, on the other hand, is portrayed as an attractive and very independent woman who knows what she wants. However, instead of searching for something, what Molly is looking for is a path in life that is very different from her past. She mentions that she does not want to follow her father’s path and that she wants to get as far away as possible from her past and the slavery in the South. Herald Loomis is shown as the character with the most obvious search for identity, as it is mentioned many times in the play. Herald comes into the story looking for his wife but, as Bynum explains, is actually looking for his identity, his “song.” Of the others, herald discovers his identity in the most dramatic fashion when he denounces his Christianity and slashes himself in anger, finally finding his song, the song of self-sufficiency. In contrast, Seth and Bertha Holly are characters that are very set and comfortable in their ways, and have somehow found identities that they are comfortable with; they act rather as constants in the story. Seth is a very straightforward man, he is very concerned about making money and works very hard at different jobs. Seth is the son of free Northern African Americans and thus has adjusted to life as it is in the North, he knows of the discrimination and just rolls with the punches, something that is shown when he berates Jeremy for quitting his job just because a white foreman wanted 50 cents for him to keep his job, considering that Jeremy earned 8$ a week. Seth does the best he can in life while trying to run a “respectable” business. Bertha is also comfortable in her role life and is not on a search for anything; just as she explains to Mattie, all one needs is love and laughter, and Bertha has discovered those things in her own life, despite the constant complaining of her husband. The children, Zonia and Reuben, are too young and too completely innocent to have found their identities yet and only know and deal with the present, they are both oblivious of the issues of those that came before them and somehow still indirectly influenced by those issues. Each of these different characters are unique in a way that is not necessarily African American, although that part of their heritage does have some bearing in the causes of the problems of some, but are uniquely human in a sense that people tend to reach crossroads after a certain great transition.
The play contains many spiritual elements interspersed with the very realistic tone of the story; some out-of-the-ordinary scene include the rituals that Bynum performs, the “jubu” where Herald speaks in tongues and seems possessed, evidence that Bynum’s Binding Song worked when Martha Pentecost and Zonia found each other again, and the great spiritual awakening that Herald experiences at the final scene of the play. However, it must be noted that these moments in the play are spiritual in nature and not, in a sense, religious, thus arguing against the idea that the story is purely a dialogue concerning religious themes. In many scenes in the play, the characters realize their own inherent spirituality, in a way that is completely separate from a religion. Reuben received a vision where he saw a ghost telling him to release his old friend Eugene’s pigeons that he had been selling to Bynum to use in his rituals; if the use of the birds were religious, why would Reuben be forced to free them? Also, the character of Bertha is shown as a constant in the play, a person who is completely comfortable in her role in life and thus can be mothering and nurturing to those seemingly lost souls n their boarding house. However, Bertha is shown as somewhat contradictory in her religious standing; she is a Christian, and yet she performs African rituals, and she admits as much to this apparent discrepancy. Like Seth, she has found a balance in the past and the present and just adjusts as life goes. In contrast, Herald’s wife, Martha, has completely embraced Christianity in speech, just like how she attempts to preach to Herald about Jesus at the end of the play. However, not only is Martha’s Christian values not very apparent in the fact that she left her daughter to move on with her own life, she also made use of Bynum’s mystic arts to bind her to Zonia. The best argument for a more spiritual instead of religious focus in the play is, of course, Herald’s story. He had been very grounded in his Christianity and had come across his most harrowing experience in life, being captured and enslaved by Joe Turner, while he was preaching to some gambling African Americans. However, at the end of the story he denounces his Christianity, and this is seen as a good thing. Furthermore, he is not shown as completely converting to the religion of his heritage either. He is said to have finally “accepted the responsibility for his own presence in the world” (Wilson), which strongly suggests freeing himself from all bonds and supernatural beliefs except the experiences of life itself.
This permeating tone of spirituality is seamlessly incorporated into the overall theme of finding one’s identity. For example, the main symbol in the play that represented identity is one’s song. A person needed to find his song to be happy in life, and that song was unique to each person. Music is incorporated into the story to stress this point further, such as the “jubu” that the main characters all participate in, as well as the jazzy “Joe Turner” song that Bynum sings. From the title of the play, “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” this refers to the infamous Joe Turner who steals men away using wicked means and enslaves them, taking away their freedom. From the parallelism that Bynum draws between Herald’s seven year hell working for Joe Turner and Herald losing his “song,” one can assume that the title refers to the way that life can sometimes take one’s identity one way or another, either by force or by simple forgetfulness, and it is up to the person to come back from whatever experience that may be and reclaim one’s identity.
In a way, the stealing of one’s identity in the context of the story, can be attributed to the struggles that African Americans faces in post-Civil War America where they can no longer identify themselves as slaves yet cannot identify themselves being equal with other Americans either because they are still constantly being discriminated against, on top of the fact that their sudden freedom caused somewhat of a migration among the former slaves leading them to lose their families. However, if one looks closer at other elements of the story, one will realize that it does not deal only with cultural identity, but spiritual and personal identity also, as portrayed in the different situations of the varied characters in the story. Thus, the play does not only tackle African American issues related to finding cultural identity after the war, not does it only portray religious themes; the play explores the more general idea of finding one’s unique identity expressed in the multi-faceted context of African American struggles while employing spiritual elements to balance the harsh realism of the search for identity. In this manner, a person from any race or religion may read or watch the play and relate to the characters and appreciate the story, because everyone struggles through life to find that perfect balance between a sense of self in a hostile world, and happiness.
Wilson, August. “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.” Title of Book or Collection. Eds. Name of Editors. Place of Publishing: Publisher, Date Published. Print.