August Wilson's Joe Turner's Come and Gone

. . . a mythmaker who sees his basically naturalistic panorama plays as stages in an allegorical history of black America, Michael Feingold (1987)

There is a production of August Wilson's Joe Turner's Come and Gone on Broadway at the Belasco Theatre, which I just saw tonight.  I sat in the second row right under the stage, soaking up the mystical, allegorical palette of the set design and the way in which the characters are molded from Wilson's rhythmical, repetitive text.  I found it somewhat more comprehensible than I found it the first time I saw it on Broadway twenty or more years ago.  Not sure how well students in the class may be able to read it but it certainly relates very directly to a blues reading of African American history and the migration from the South to the North.

The play is entirely set at a boarding house in Pittsburgh run by a seemingly middle aged couple, both warm and nurturing people.  Part of the household is Bynum, an elderly man who also works roots and exercises at various times a power to move people around that goes beyond the visible and the concrete.  His powers, he says, are specifically to bind people together, to help people to find the one with whom they should be bound and then bind them.  Also in the household is a very young man who plays the guitar, a frisky kind of troublesome fellow just up from the South and given to womanizing.

Two women come to the house and each takes up with the young man in turn.  Meanwhile, Harold Loomis, a mysterious dark stranger arrives at the house with his daughter in tow.  He is looking for his wife whom he hasn't seen in 11 years.  As it turns out, he was kidnapped by Joe Turner and endured the horrors of forced labor and exploitation.  Loomis is presented as a man who wears the scars of his enslavement on his sleeve and who is holding onto the pain but in a manner meant to symbolize, I should think, the incorporation of a slave mentality for some black men in a manner making them particularly subject to violence against others and themselves.  

The coercive nature of his service is clearly meant to serve as a metaphor for the forced enslavement and transportation of the slave trade and of Jim Crow peonage.  In any case, I don't want to say too much more about this for fear of entirely ruining the pleasure of seeing the play for the first time, except to say that Wilson's text has aged well in my opinion.  Also that it continues to fascinate me that black authors regardless of the aesthetic tradition they practice all seem to embrace so much of the same resonant vocabulary having to do with drowning, water, dead rotting or floating bodies, bones, backbreaking physical labor--all of them drenched with the rhythms and preoccupations of the blues and African influenced religious practices.  In particular, watching this play I was struck by how much of it seemed to resonate with some the visual vocabulary of so many African American visual artists generally. 

The music was done by Taj Mahal, somebody who is a vigilant student of the blues and its roots in African music, which comes through the score although very little musical performance is incorporated into the show.  

I have invited those students who might be interested in my World Humanities version of Blues People to go to see the play and write about it as an assignment that could substitute for the mid-term, or provide extra credit.  Wilson's Joe Turner's Come and Gone is set in the early teens, and all his plays are all devoted to portraying the history of the folk.

Also, the entire text of August Wilson's Joe Turner is included in the Norton Anthology.

In addition, Joe Turner is the subject of a number of blues tunes, having much to do with Wilson's choice of him as a subject for his play no doubt.  The ones I have in my musical collection, and which I play all the time they are so beautiful and mysterious are by Big Bill Broonzy, Ed Young and Hobart Smith, and Miles and Bob Pratcher, all of them coming from Alan Lomax's Blues Songbook Collection, a 2-cd set with a medley of classics from Lomax's copious collection of "folk" performance mostly in the rural South from the 20s through the 60s.  

According to these songs, Joe Turner is a mythological figure something like John Henry, except that in Turner's case he comes to your house when you are in need, without work and food, and then he makes sure you get what you need.  How this works in August Wilson's play is somewhat different.  Joe Turner seems to be a figure who occupies the symbolic position of the enslaver, the enforcer, the white kidnapper of black men.  

The play begins with this beautiful and poetic description, as a preamble to the action:

It is August in Pittsburgh, 1911.  The sun falls out of heaven like a stone.  The fires of the steel mill rage with a combined sense of industry and progress.  Barges loaded with coal and iron ore trudge up the river to the mill towns that dot the Monongahela and return with fresh, hard, gleaming steel.  The city flexes its muscles.  Men throw countless bridges across the rivers, lay roads and carve tunnels through the hills sprouting with houses.

From the deep and the near South the sons and daughters of newly freed African slaves wander into the city.  Isolated, cut off from memory, having forgotten the names of the gods and only guessing at their faces, they arrived dazed and stunned, their heart kicking in their chest with a song worth singing.  They arrive carrying Bibles and guitars, their pockets lined with the dust and fresh hope, marked men and women seeking to scrape from the narrow, crooked cobbles and the fiery blasts of the coke furnace a way of bludgeoning and shaping the malleable parts of themselves in a new identity as free men of definite and sincere worth.

Foreigners in a strange land, they carry as part and parcel of their baggage a long line of separation and dispersement which informs their sensibilities and marks their conduct as they search for ways to reconnect, to reassemble, to give clear and illuminous meaning to the song which is both a wail and a whelp of joy. (August Wilson, Joe Turner's Come and Gone)

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