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.

Erin Roux Explores Short Story Vending Machines as Mending Machines of the “Literary Experience”

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by Erin Roux

In an age of smart phones and e-readers, it is not often that people indulge in the beauty and simplicity that is the classic literary experience: the reading of a physical book. In the last two decades, ink on paper has been replaced by pixels and iPads. The turning of a page is now a mindless swipe. The appeal of the hard copy is diminishing as people succumb to the allure of the screen.

Interestingly, though, Inverse reports that the city of Grenoble in southeastern France has caused many to consider new directions for the intersection of literature and technology in its implementation of “vending machines” in public areas that dispense short stories: a modern concept that is bringing back the classic experience. These new and completely free devices were created from a collaboration between a publishing company called Short Édition and Grenoble’s mayor, Éric Piolle. They have been placed in eight different places around the city in an attempt to fill up various unproductive moments that are often spent scrolling on smartphones. The machines distribute original short stories that are written by members of Short Édition and are dispensed at random to the readers, though they can pick how long they want their story based on how much time that have to fill while waiting around with a choice of one, three, or five-minute stories.

This is a small yet significant return to the practice of the reading of a hard copy as opposed to spending time plugged in. Reading on anything other than a digital device—be it a slip of paper or a trade paperback—eliminates the other distractions that technology allows for. When reading on a smartphone it’s easy to reply to an incoming text or watch some video on Facebook. But with a physical copy, when feeling the pages in your hands, it’s hard not to be absorbed in the work.

The feel of a page is special and characteristic of the original experience most readers had with a physical book until digital publishing changed the sole method of delivery. It’s an experience that people generations before us have enjoyed, and also something that is on the cusp of disappearing. It’s important to remember the point of literature, which is in part to be connected with the past and to experience things that can’t all be experienced in one lifetime. Grenoble’s short story machines are proof that the future and the past can continue to coexist and that physical copies of literature won’t disappear anytime soon.

More importantly, the fact that access to these short story vending machines is free to the public allows the literary experience to be available to everyone. Instead of spending free time on social media, people can fill little moments with brilliant stories, new perspectives, and appealing prose. Much like libraries are home to free information for those who search for it, these machines are like little libraries for those who give a minute or two of their lives to experience it. The classic literary experience is not deteriorating—it is changing for the better.

The ability for the old and the new to coexist while still staying true to the tradition of literature will allow easier access to a much wider audience than ever before. And better yet, the smartphones and e-readers are out of sight, out of mind.