Southern Lit 3: “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone”
After re-reading “Fences” then reading “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” and “The Piano Lesson,” I decided to go one step further and read another one of August Wilson’s plays, “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.” I had not originally planned to read this play, but in researching which plays won what prizes, namely Pulitzer, Tony and Drama Critics Circle awards, “Joe Turner” seemed a must-read alongside the other three. In the play, set in 1911 at a Pittsburgh boardinghouse owned by Seth Holly and his wife Bertha, a dark, brooding man named Herald Loomis arrives with his eleven-year-old daughter Zonia; the pair are looking for Loomis’ missing wife (and Zonia’s missing mother) Martha, who left their home in the South while Loomis was in prison, put there by Joe Turner. Although Loomis seems to be the character around which the story revolves, the character of Bynum is also significant to mention; an eccentric, an oddball wise man, and/or practitioner of voodoo or something like it, Bynum is the catalyst for handling Loomis’ unorthodox personality, which is far to out there for the über-practical Seth, who just wants his two-dollar weekly rent and a peaceful house.
“Joe Turner” does bear some similarities to the other plays I had read already, mostly in the language used by the characters, the kinds of phrasing and slang, and the presence of certain kinds of characters. This dark play also embraces the mystical, magical, and/or spiritual elements of life, too, in similar ways to Troy’s exposition on his wrestling match with Death or Boy Willie’s showdown with Sutter’s Ghost. Where Bynum’s “heebie jeebie stuff,” as Seth calls it, seems rather harmless, the darker elements of Herald Loomis’ visions of oceans of bones turning into arid, soulless men and neighbor boy Reuben Mercer’s deep concern over his promise to his dead friend about releasing his pigeons create an extremely sinister atmosphere.
I couldn’t help but assuming that the man referred to as Joe Turner was a symbol of Jim Crow, a name synonymous with post-slavery segregation and inequality. Of course, where history can find no record of an actual man named Jim Crow from whom the system could have gotten its name, Joe Turner is based on a real man named Joe Turney, who was the brother of an actual Tennessee governor and who did what the play describes. Certainly either the fictional Joe Turner or the real Joe Turney could be viewed as symbols for –or embodiments of — Jim Crow at its worst. In the play, Joe Turner is a real person, also the brother of a governor of Tennessee, who goes around Memphis and rounds up African-American men in groups of forty and imprisons them unjustly for seven years to do his work for him. The sub-text of Herald Loomis’ mysterious nature is revealed relatively late in the play when Bynum asks him about his experiences with Joe Turner, and Loomis reveals that he was arrested by Joe Turner while trying, as a deacon of the church, to convert some gambling men from their “sinful ways;” Loomis was imprisoned, and his Martha left their home, then thinking he was dead after five years, left and would never return. Notwithstanding the Biblical nature of the numbers August Wilson used in Joe Turner’s dealings — forty and seven — his powerful position and his inexplicable cruelty to African-American men smacks of the realities of Jim Crow in the South of the early twentieth century.
Although I would like to eventually read all of August Wilson’s “Pittsburgh Cycle,” I am going to stop for now, with four plays read and six plays still unread. The most prominent of the six plays that I haven’t gotten into yet seems to be “Seven Guitars.” Where immersing myself in certain types of books or authors is something I enjoy, stepping away from them seems to have benefits, too, with the time and distance to let the material soak in before taking on any more. These four plays have given me plenty to think about for right now.