Week 4 – Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (notes)
- Largest cast of any Wilson play so far. 12 counting the ever-present Joe Turner, 15 with appearance of Miss Mabel, plus the unseen Eugene, plus Jack Carper.
- Said to be Wilson’s favorite play in the cycle. Based on Romare Bearden painting, Mill Hand’s Lunch Bucket.
- Herald Loomis is the Wilson Warrior, but Bynum and Bertha play significant supporting roles.
Themes that recur:
- Blood as a means of cleansing, baptism, lifting the veil
- Finding one’s song is finding one’s voice, discovering a sense and practice of agency
- The relationship between Bynum’s Shiny Man, called One Who Goes before and Shows the Way, a sort of First Man, and Loomis’s first name, Herald, i.e., a messenger, a sign that something is about to happen. A play on words.
- Selig, the white “trader.” Buys and sells pots (sustenance, basic necessity) and finds lost people (only because he carried them away in the first place). WD Fard. (Martha started at the Holly house and was carried away by Selig. That is why Loomis said he could smell her there and knew she wasn’t dead)
- Bynum’s (Bind them) spirituality helps people, but still doesn’t give him his song completely, until he witnesses the return of the Shiny Man who self-baptizes, self-realizes, self-actualizes, and self-transcends (to use Maslow’s framework).
5. Play Structure
- Exposition: Scene 1: the boardinghouse; Bynum’s spirituality; Seth’s superiority complex; Selig, the trader
- Rising action: Arrival of Herald Loomis, Seth’s distrust.
- Climax #1: End of Scene 1. The Juba dance scene, Loomis’s disapproval and the performance of his own “act” within and via the old slave and minstrel celebration, aided by Bynum.
- Falling action: Seth’s growing distrust and decision to evict Loomis; the Mollie/Mattie/Jeremy love triangle.
- Resolution: Loomis fails to romance Mattie; future prospects for Reuben and Zonia; Loomis departs the House (but we feel him watching from a distance)
- Climax #2/Denouement: Martha Loomis returns to the House and reunites with Zonia; Loomis self-baptizes and self delivers; Bynum sees Shiny Man (in Loomis) and finds his agency at last.
6. Explaining the end of the play.
It can be argued that the end of the play is a bit whacked, poorly constructed, or just plain flawed. I propose that taking such a position would be both inaccurate and incorrect. Of course, we would love to see Martha and Herald reunited and marching off into the sunset with their darling little girl, Zonia. But I contend that the play was never intended to be about Martha and Herald, but about Herald (the Wilson Warrior) and his development and, take a deep breath, about Bynum and his final fulfillment. Let me set the scene.
In Act 1 scene 1, Bynum told Selig, the trader and People Finder, about a man he was looking for, a Shiny Man he met on a road who once shared with him the Secret of Life. Bynum said the man asked for his hands, then rubbed Bynum’s hands between his own hands that had blood on them and said the blood was a way of cleaning himself. Soon the road changed, the surroundings changed and “everything look[ed] like it was twice as big as it was.” The cleaning with blood was clearly also a type of enlightenment, a baptism of sorts, preparing Bynum for a future task. During the same experience, Bynum saw his father, who told him he would show him how to “find my song,” and explained that the Shiny Man Bynum had earlier seen was “the One Who Goes Before and Shows the Way and that
“Said there was lots of shiny men and if I ever saw one again before I died then I would know that my song had been accepted and worked its full power and I could lay down and die a happy man. A man who done left his mark on life.”
OK. Hold on to that thought . . .
Skipping forward to the end of Act 1 scene 4, the House folks have come together on a Sunday evening after dinner to do a Juba, a minstrel/African cultural celebration that involves dancing, singing, and invoking the Holy Spirit. Everybody is there and participating except Herald. When Herald arrives, he goes off the deep edge, questioning the existence of God and the Holy Ghost. He goes off into a bit of a other worldly experience, “dancing and speaking in tongues.” he then says,
“You all don’t know nothing about me. You don’t know what I done seen. Herald Loomis done seen some things he ain’t got words to tell you.”
Bynum comes to his aid, walks him through his exposition of the vision he has seen, learns about his vision, and walks him back from the edge, so to speak, and back to this world and sanity. We won’t go into the details of that vision here, but suffice it to say that elements of the vision are significant, the bones rising and walking on the water, the bones sinking all together all at once and forming a tidal wave that washes the bones, now clothed with flesh, black flesh, ashore, but still inanimate. Then a wind enters the bodies and brings them to life, and Herald Loomis is one of those bodies come to life, except at that point, unlike all the others, Loomis cannot stand up, or as he says it “My legs won’t stand up.” At that point, I think Bynum knew spiritually and at some level that he had found, at least potentially, his shiny man. But that more development would be required.
OK, moving forward to the end of Act 2 scene 5 (the stuff in the middle is not insignificant, but we can come back to it later if we have to), Martha returns to the House, Loomis returns, and Martha thanks Bynum for reuniting her with her daughter Zonia. Loomis takes offense at that and accuses Bynum of “binding” him to the road, to a life of wandering around and dissatisfaction. Bynum denies it, and at this point, Loomis draws his knife, followed by a type of call and response that tells us with finality there is not going to be a future with Martha and Loomis together. Their apartness has developed them into different people than they were before when they were together. AS Herald says, “Joe Turner’s come and gone.”
Then at the height of the exchange, Loomis draws the knife across his chest, drawing blood, then rubs that blood over his face, replicating, in some ways, the same blood cleaning and self-baptism that Bynum experienced in Act 1 with the original shiny man. Similarly, Loomis comes to a new awareness as a result of the blood baptism. Finally, he is standing and he proclaims “I am standing! My legs stood up! I’m standing now.”
This is the completion that Loomis sought. He bids Martha farewell, and Mattie rushes out to be at his side. The stage directions Wilson inserts here are pure poetry:
Having found his song,
the song of self-sufficiency,
fully resurrected, cleansed and given breath,
free from any encumbrance
other than the workings of his own heart
and the bonds of the flesh,
having accepted the responsibility
for his presence in the world,
he is free to soar above the environs
that weighed and pushed his spirit
into terrifying contractions.
At this point, Bynum realizes fully that Loomis is his shiny man, that his song has been accepted, and that he has lived a life of meaning.
So, Loomis is complete. He has Mattie at his side for his next journey. And Bynum can peacefully rest. Q.E.D.