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.

Celebrate Black History Month by Reading

I found inspiration from the website, Polymic‘s, “7 Works of Literature Worth Reading During Black History Month” to write this short piece. I thought it would be great to share more influential pieces of literature to try out this month in honoring black history. My undergraduate professor of John Carroll University, Dr. Chris Roark, who recently passed away, introduced me a diverse selection of African-American Literature. With his guidance, I gained confidence in my knowledge of Black literature and deepened my passion language as a form of self-expression–which is ever so prominent in African-American literature. This list includes some of the texts he illuminated to many English students.

Not that I have any authority over the subject matter, but these works are simply beautiful, creative pieces that I believe are worth a read!

butbeautiful1. But Beautiful: A Book about Jazz, by Geoff Dyer
Interested in music–specifically jazz? This novel creatively illustrates the various lives of famous jazz musicians including, but not limited to: Charles Mingus, Theolonius Monk, Bud Powell, Chet Baker, and Ben Webster. In a “quasi-biographical” fashion, the story depicts nine diverse jazz musicians and how their personal backgrounds influenced their music. If you don’t like jazz, you might after reading this unique novel. I suggest putting on “Ruby, My Dear” by Thelonious Monk while reading, it will definitely add to the textual experience.

2. Fences, by August Wilson
This critically acclaimed play tackles the problem of black manhood in the 1950’s. Wilson’s Fences illuminates the problems of Black identity. The play’s main character, Troy, attempts to integrate his past experiences as a Negro Baseball player with the modern 1950’s lifestyle of his family. The reader is swept away through the raw, honest dialogue between the characters and the deep-rooted, effective symbolism. It’s a fast, worthwhile read for anyone interested in this topic!

sentforyou3. Sent for You Yesterday, by John Edgar Wideman
Wideman’s novel, published in 1983, surrounds the return of Albert Wilkes to his hometown and neighborhood of Homewood, set near Pittsburgh, PA. The novel depicts the life of various community members including the unique character, Brother Tate. Wideman examines the notion of Black self-image within historical and social contexts of the U.S., particularly in Homewood. Music and language are exhibited as forms of therapy for the characters in the novel. Wideman creates thoroughly constructed characters with which his readers can empathize and gain understanding.
4. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, by Harriet Jacobs
Jacobs’s work was truly unique for its time: it was a story written by an African-American woman, but also slave (as the title suggests). Under a different pen name “Linda Brent,” Jacobs described the harsh realities of slavery through her experiences. The novel exposes the particular brutality that slave women faced as they were continuously raped, ripped apart from their children, and treated poorly from their female superiors. This work marked a change in literature; literature began exposing the immorality of the U.S. law.

songofsolomon5. Song of Solomon, by Toni Morrison
Of course I cannot leave out the talented, Toni Morrison from my list. While The Bluest Eye, Tar Baby, and Sula are great works, among her many others, this work is one of my favorites because of its magical realism. Morrison incorporates biblical allusions and magical realism, with emphasis on human flight. This style of writing draws in the reader to a heartbreaking tale surrounding the main character, Milkman Dead. The novel touches upon topics such as the impacts of racism, the abandonment of black women, and the significance of names. One of her more imaginative works, Song of Solomon, is a beautifully written novel where Morrison draws in the reader and arguably speaks through the narrator, “You wanna fly, you got to give up the shit that weighs you down.”

Each of these texts bring something new to African-American Literature, and there many more works out there to be read. You may have others you’d suggest to others, please feel free to comment on The Underground blog and share more!

–Emily Todd, Editor