Jeo Turner’s Come and Gone is one of the most memorable plays written by playwright August Wilson. It is one instalment in The Pittsburgh Cycle series, which documents the lives and struggles of black Americans in early 20th century America. Set in the time of the Jazz Age, the book’s heroes are former slaves who explore their recently acquired freedoms in the industrial New England region. Seth Holly and Bertha Holly are the elderly black couple, who own and manage a boarding house. It is in the backdrop of this boarding house that we learn about other characters in the play such as Bynum Walker, Rutherford Selig, Jeremy Furlow, Herald Loomis, Zonia Loomis, etc. Joe Turner, the only white in the book, does not actually make an appearance in any of the scenes. But the narrative is constructed in such a way that other characters live in perpetual fear of him due to his sinister schemes to capture and enslave legally freed blacks. The plot and narrative of the play centers on the interactions between the boarders in the house under the looming threat of being rounded up by Joe Turner and his aides.
There are a couple of aspects of the book Joe Turner’s Come and Gone that struck me personally. First is the resolution and courage shown by the two generations of free blacks. The older generation had experienced slavery first-hand and are confounded by their newly granted liberties. Some of them take it well and better their lives while the rest are hung up and mentally affected by their past that the new reality has little positive effect on them. Secondly, through the characterization of Joe Turner, author August Wilson is making a strong political statement that though blacks had won their freedoms on paper, their reality is still as threatening and oppressive as it was from the early days of slavery.
As the book was released in 1984, Arthur Wilson had the benefit of twentieth century history to suggest that it wasn’t until the civil rights movement of the 1960s that any real emancipation of blacks took place. And writing this response paper as I do in 2010, I can see how the election of Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama is a monumental achievement for black Americans. Wilson would be pleasantly surprised by the progress made by this minority community in the span of a century. And it is to the credit of critical voices like his that such progress was made possible.
Seen from other contemporary issues surrounding minorities in America, one would say that the sentiments and grievances expressed in the book Joe Turner’s Come and Gone are applicable to illegal immigrants such as Hispanic Americans, who are going through a tough period of getting assimilated into mainstream American society. Hence, in conclusion, I would say that the book had affected me quite profoundly and has woken me to some of the historical social injustices of our country as well as their continuing manifestation in contemporary era.
Wilson, August. Joe Turner’s Come and Gone: A Play in Two Acts, Published by The New American Library in 1986.