Joe Turner’s Come and Gone: Finding Song, Stability and Self in Post-Slavery America

by Erin Roux

To find one’s “song” or way of life is a journey. It is to make sense of the past and to find a way to heal. It is to stay in a house for people who come and go. It is to look toward the future and to “figure out the secret of your life on your own”, as the play tells us. Written in 1984, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone takes place in 1911 in post-slavery America and shows small pieces of the lives of the African-American people who come and go through a Pittsburgh boardinghouse owned by a stern, yet charitable couple, Seth and Bertha Holly. The Theatre School is performing this provocative work, written by August Wilson and directed by Phyllis E. Griffin, from November 6th through November 15th, 2015.

Joe Turner's Come and Gone Vertical

The majority of the show takes place in a modest kitchen and living room setting, offset by various scenes that we understand, as the audience, to take place outside. Above the audience hangs a clothesline, seemingly meant to bring the viewers into the scene as opposed to remaining on the outside. It’s as if we are invited into this boardinghouse. While the entirety of this play takes place in the house setting, the audience is taken to different times and places through the stories told throughout the play.

Storytelling in this play provides for an interesting dynamic. Just as the setting invites the audience into the lives of the characters, the stories invite the characters into each other’s lives. Stories about guitar contests, “shining” men and beautiful women like “water and berries” uncover the complex pasts of the characters we see on stage. This play illustrates the connections between past and present through these stories, allowing the characters to make sense of their lives as well as a way to heal from the hardships of the past.

The boardinghouse is a place of stability and connections in a time of constant movement and confusion. It is a place where people are “bound together” as opposed to being “bound up”. It is where people are allowed to reflect on the past to then look toward the future. It is a solid home for the fluid and searching vagabonds.

Each tenant of the boardinghouse is African-American and is searching for something, be it laughter, love, or a lost wife, each being representations of certain values held during this complex time in American history as well as of values we hold today. Proprietor Seth Holly, born in the north to a fairly stable household, is proud of his boardinghouse. He wants stability and to simply stay afloat financially and doesn’t understand people who don’t follow this way of life. This solid character provides the boardinghouse for the tenants and a setting for the play itself. Bynum Walker, a spiritual man known to “fix things” and “bind people together”, is looking for a “song” by which he can live his life. Herald Loomis, a mysterious man with a bright daughter has a dark past looking for his wife whom he hasn’t seen for several years. Though each person is looking for something different, each is looking away from the past and toward the future, while making sense of the present, going as fast as their legs and spirits can take them.

Heartwarming scenes juxtaposed with intense monologues and inevitable truth make up this emotional and thought-provoking show, all performed by a brilliant cast. It is an excellent representation of the healing powers of the arts and writing; this play reflects the boardinghouse in that it is safe place to touch on difficult memories, a way to make sense of the past, and a means in which to heal to continue the journey into the future. Anyone looking to see incredible talent, have a closer look at a confusing time in American history or someone who wants to “find a song from the pieces inside of you” is absolutely encouraged to come and see this show.

On the Fullerton Stage through November 15th at The Theatre School at DePaul. Tickets available here.

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