Joe Turner’s Come and Gone


August Wilson

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Joe Turner’s Come and Gone Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on August Wilson's Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of August Wilson

The fourth of six children, Wilson was raised in a poor neighborhood of Pittsburgh predominately populated by black Americans, as well as Italian and Jewish immigrants. Upon the divorce of his mother and father in the 1950s, Wilson and his family moved to Hazelwood—a mainly white, working-class section of Pittsburgh where their appearance, as a black family, wasn’t met with open arms. Facing racist rage—their Hazelwood home had bricks thrown through its windows—they soon moved to a new home. Dropping out of high school in the tenth grade after being falsely accused of plagiarizing a twenty-page paper on Napoleon I, Wilson worked odd jobs and made great use of Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Library. The gifted Wilson had learned to read at age four, and ultimately received an honorary high school diploma from the library for the precocious extent to which he educated himself with its books. Best known for his plays Fences, The Piano Lesson (both of which won the Pulitzer Prize), Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Wilson once said that his work was most influenced by “four B’s”—blues music, the writers Jorge Luis Borges and Amiri Baraka, and Romare Bearden, a painter. Wilson ultimately wrote sixteen plays, ten of which comprised what is called his Pittsburgh Cycle (or Century Cycle), as nine of them take place in the city’s Hill District, an African-American neighborhood. Wilson died at the age of 60 in Seattle, from liver cancer, leaving a legacy behind him as one of the twenty century’s most prominent playwrights.
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Historical Context of Joe Turner’s Come and Gone

Joe Turner’s Come and Gone takes place nearly 50 years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, which declared all slaves legally free. Because the Civil War didn’t end until 1865, though, the full effects of this legal action weren’t immediately brought to bear on the nation. Even when the Union finally defeated the Confederacy—thereby enforcing the abolition of slavery throughout all of the United States rather than just in the North—African Americans still faced strong forms of systematized racism. For example, a man known as Joe Turney (or Joe Turner), the brother of the governor of Tennessee, was employed by law enforcement to travel with and deliver convicts to a prison in Nashville, but he often sold black prisoners—many of whom had only committed petty crimes—to farmers along the Mississippi who needed workers. Often times, black men were even framed as having broken the law for this exact purpose. One common way Turney’s men framed them was by staging gambling games on the roadside and manipulating African Americans to join as they passed. Once the passerby started playing, officers would descend on the scene and round up the supposed lawbreakers, eventually turning them over to Turney. This piece of history is what Wilson bases Herald Loomis’s backstory on, as Loomis explains that he stopped to preach to several gamblers and was suddenly taken hostage by Joe Turner. In fact, Joe Turner’s influence on the South was so pervasive that a blues song circulated about him, based on what people would say when somebody asked why the majority of a town’s black men were missing: “They tell me Joe Turner’s come and gone.” 

Other Books Related to Joe Turner’s Come and Gone

August Wilson wrote a series of plays called The Pittsburgh Cycle. This collection of pieces—also known as The Century Cycle—consists of ten plays, all of which document the nature of African-American life in a given decade of the twentieth century. The first play that Wilson wrote in this cycle is Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, which takes place in the 1920s and is the only piece in the entire group that isn’t set in Pittsburgh. The rest, including Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (documenting the 1910s), take place in Pittsburgh’s Hill District. Furthermore, some plays in the cycle—which includes famous works like Fences and The Piano Lesson—even share several of the same characters and specific locations.
Key Facts about Joe Turner’s Come and Gone
  • Full Title: Joe Turner’s Come and Gone
  • When Published: The play initially debuted as a staged reading in 1984, and then appeared separately on stage in 1986, 1987, and 1988.
  • Literary Period: Postmodernism/Contemporary Literature
  • Genre: Drama
  • Setting: A Pittsburgh boarding house in 1911.
  • Climax: Upon seeing his wife, Martha, after many years, Herald Loomis slashes his chest with a knife and rubs his body with blood, declaring that he finally feels as if he’s standing on his own two feet. As he exits Seth’s boarding house, Mattie Campbell runs to join him, and Bynum yells, “Herald Loomis, you shining!”
  • Antagonist: The long-lasting effects of racism, which reverberate throughout America in the aftermath of slavery.

Extra Credit for Joe Turner’s Come and Gone

The Blues. When Joe Turner’s Come and Gone appeared on Broadway in 2009, the renowned blues singer and guitar player Taj Mahal provided musical accompaniment.

Controversy. When he was alive, August Wilson insisted that his major productions be directed by black people, not white people. After his death, though, many white directors began staging his pieces, a fact that has sparked controversy in the theater world.