Bertha Holly prepares breakfast in the kitchen of her boarding house while her husband, Seth, looks out the window. He is watching Bynum, a “rootworker” or “conjure man” who lives in the boarding house. Bynum is currently outside in the garden performing a spiritualistic ritual with pigeons, a fact that troubles Seth. “All that old mumbo jumbo nonsense,” he says. “I don’t know why I put up with it.” Trying to get him to lighten up, his wife points out that he himself doesn’t mind when Bynum uses that “mumbo jumbo nonsense” to bless the house. Seth contests this by saying he only entertains such practices because of Bertha, who doesn’t mind mixing folk magic with Christianity. Unperturbed, Bertha merely says, “It don’t hurt none. I can’t say if it help…but it don’t hurt none.”
In this opening scene, conflicting ideas about spirituality quickly emerge, and it becomes clear that Seth sees himself as a pragmatic man who doesn’t feel the need to seek meaning or purpose by way of spirituality. Indeed, he merely “put[s] up with” rituals and superstitions. Bertha, on the other hand, is flexible in her approach to faith. For her, mixing Christianity with folk magic doesn’t diminish either one, but rather doubles her chances of benefitting from either practice. When she says that she doesn’t know if it helps but is confident these measures don’t “hurt,” she casts spirituality in a rather utilitarian manner, portraying it as something that can be used to help a person.
Seth continues watching Bynum, worried the old man is about to drink pigeon blood, though Bertha assures her husband that this isn’t the case. To take his mind off such matters, she asks him about work, and Seth tells her he wants to teach five men to make pots and pans so he can increase his output, though he’s been unable to convince any white men to give him a loan to do this. Seth and Bertha then talk about Jeremy, a young tenant who apparently was jailed for being drunk the previous night. “You know I don’t put up with that,” Seth says. As he does so, Bynum comes inside, and Wilson provides a quick note: “Nothing ever bothers him. He seems to be lost in a world of his own making and to swallow any adversity or interference with his grand design.”
When Wilson writes that Bynum gives the impression that “nothing ever bothers him” because he’s “lost in a world of his own making,” he illustrates how much a strong sense of spirituality can affect the way a person carries himself in the world. Indeed, Bynum’s entire identity is apparently oriented around his strong conviction that he is part of a “grand design,” a belief that ultimately allows him to “swallow any adversity.” As such, spirituality—for Bynum, at least—becomes a way of coping with an otherwise difficult and unpredictable world.
Bynum says Seth looks sick, but Seth brushes him off, saying even if he were sick, he wouldn’t let Bynum heal him. When Bynum asks after Jeremy, Seth rants about how he won’t put up with irresponsible behavior in his house. Bynum remarks that Jeremy’s a good kid who merely has a bit of “country” in him that will eventually fade, but Seth holds forth, saying, “These niggers coming up here with that old backward country style of living… Ever since slavery got over with there ain’t been nothing but foolish-acting niggers.” He upholds that young African Americans “drop everything” at the first mention of work, travelling northward with too much optimism about their employment prospects. “They don’t know the white fellows looking too. […] White fellow come over and in six months got more than what I got.”
Seth reveals himself in this moment as deeply cynical of the optimism of black migrant workers traveling northward out of the South. To him, the idea of “drop[ping] everything” to explore relatively unknown employment prospects is foolish, especially since white people are also looking for work. This is an important point, since Seth brings up the very real fact that, although slavery has ended, the nation is still a long way from racial equality. Indeed, he suggests that it’s naïve for a black person to think they will be able to find good work just because there are jobs to be filled—what this mindset fails to take into account, Seth shows, is the racism still running throughout the country and dominating the workforce.
Rutherford Selig, a white man and traveling salesman, knocks on the door. Once he’s inside, Bynum greets him, saying, “If it ain’t Rutherford Selig…the People Finder himself.” Bynum then asks Selig if he has found the “shiny man” he hired him to track down. Ignoring him for the moment, Selig gives Seth sheet metal, and the two men make a deal that Seth will buy the material and use it to make dustpans, which Selig will buy back the following Saturday, setting off again to sell the dustpans in the neighboring towns. After the two men haggle, Bynum interjects, asking Selig where he has traveled this past week and if he’s found anybody. When he asks why Selig hasn’t found his “shiny man,” Selig says, “The only shiny man I saw was the Nigras working on the road gang with the sweat glistening on them.”
Despite Seth’s pessimism regarding employment opportunities in Northern cities, he himself seems to have procured a relatively stable and lucrative financial position, in which he can make deals with a white man. A black craftsman, he has found a way to sell his wares without having to go door-to-door himself; having Selig sell the products is beneficial to Seth, since Selig is white. After all, if Seth were the one going door-to-door, he’d be sure to make fewer sales due racial prejudice. In this way, Wilson shows that Seth has found a creative way to exist in an environment that might otherwise prove unaccommodating to a black man. This is perhaps why Seth is so discouraging of other African Americans traveling north to find jobs: he knows his own success story is rare.
Bynum tells Selig about how he first met the shiny man, explaining that he came upon him while walking on a road in Johnston—this man was lost and asked Bynum for directions and some food, which Bynum gave him. The man then told Bynum to follow him because he wanted to show him something, so Bynum walked with him until he remembered that the man was supposedly unfamiliar with the road. When he pointed this out, the man said he had a voice inside pointing him in the right direction. If Bynum followed, he said, he’d show him the Secret of Life. At this point Seth interrupts, pointing out that Selig only gave him six sheets of metal instead of eight, the number Selig originally mentioned. “Wait a minute, Seth,” Selig says. “Bynum’s telling me about the secret of life.”
Although it was perhaps an accident, the fact that Selig gave Seth fewer sheets of metal than he’d originally indicated is significant, since it suggests that Selig is perhaps not entirely honest. Of course, it would be in keeping with the racism still plaguing the country if Selig were trying to cheat Seth, despite the fact that he and Seth seem to have a cordial and smooth working relationship. As such, Wilson suggests that even black entrepreneurs who have found stability and good positions have to remain alert and on their guard when it comes to making transactions with white people.
In Bynum’s story, he and this stranger approach a bend in the road, and the man tells him to hold out his hands. Bynum obliges, and the stranger rubs blood onto his palms, instructing him to smear it over his body as a way of cleaning himself. After Bynum does so, they turn the corner, and suddenly everything is “bigger than life.” Turning to look at his guide, Bynum sees light pouring out of the stranger, making him shine blindingly “like new money” until he vanishes altogether, leaving Bynum alone. For some time, Bynum rambles through this strange place before coming upon the spirit of his dead father, who tells him he’s been thinking about him and that it makes him sad to see that Bynum has been “carrying other people’s songs and not having one of [his] own.”
In conjunction with the idea that there is a “secret of life” in the first place, the notion that a person can have a “song” of his “own” suggests a certain profound and fundamental conception of spirituality, one in which life and existence has a specific meaning (or a specific quality, as would be the case with a person’s “song”). When it comes to Bynum not having a song of his “own,” Wilson implies that each person has a defining spiritual element within themselves and that it’s their job to find or recognize it.
Bynum’s father helps him find his “song,” carrying him into an ocean and showing him something that Bynum “ain’t got words to tell” to Selig. For a while, Bynum stays and learns his “song,” eventually asking his father about the shiny man, who his father explains was “the One Who Goes Before and Shows the Way.” If Bynum ever sees another shiny man, his father says, he’ll know that his “song [has] been accepted and worked its full power in the world,” at which point he can lie down and die happily, knowing he’s “left his mark on life.” When Bynum finally makes his way back to the road, he has learned his “song,” which—he explains to Selig—is the Binding Song, meaning he can bind people together. “I choose that song because that’s what I seen most when I was traveling…people walking away and leaving one another.”
Wilson never straightforwardly explains what it means to have a “song,” but it’s clear in this moment that Bynum conceives of his “song” as his defining element, something that gives purpose to his entire existence. This conception aligns with Wilson’s earlier description of Bynum, in which he says that Bynum exists in a world of his “own making,” one that places him in a “grand design.” This “grand design,” apparently, is to “bind” people, a fact that once again brings the idea of migration to the forefront of the play. Indeed, Bynum seems to have lived a life of transience himself, and he knows that people often wander away from one another, whether because they are driven to it or because they feel the pull of the open road and the possibilities it presents. The fact that he wants to reunite people, though, suggests that this kind of transience, this constant hope to find newer, better lives, is not always for the best.
Bynum tells Selig that he’s been “binding people ever since” learning his “song,” which is why people call him Bynum. “Well, how is that the Secret of Life?” Selig asks, but Bynum tells him he has to figure it out for himself. At this point, Selig shifts his attention back to his transaction with Seth, and the two men arrange for Selig to return the following week to retrieve the dustpans. Shortly after Selig leaves, Jeremy comes into the kitchen, sitting down to eat a large breakfast after a long night in jail. Wilson notes that Jeremy “gives the impression that he has the world in his hand, that he can meet life’s challenges head on. He smiles a lot. He is a proficient guitar player, though his spirit has yet to be molded into song.”
Bynum’s assertion that Selig has to figure out the secret of life for himself is somewhat comedic, since he originally started telling his story under the pretense of telling his listener that very same secret. Nonetheless, this idea is very much in keeping with Bynum’s notion that each person must find their own “song”—no two songs will be the same, and so the secret of life will inevitably vary from person to person, too. What’s interesting about this notion is that it frames spirituality not as something that gives a person just one way of interpreting the world—as is often the case with standard religions—but something that can enable a person to embrace the ever-shifting, malleable nature of life and existence.
Seth chastises Jeremy for getting arrested, telling him he won’t stand for this kind of behavior under his roof. Defending himself, Jeremy explains that he wasn’t even drunk when the police officers arrested him. In fact, he and his friend had just bought a bottle of liquor with the money they earned working on a new bridge when, before they could even open the bottle, the police officers came upon them and took them into custody. They did so, Jeremy says, so that they could take the money and use it for themselves. Nonetheless, Seth merely says, “I don’t go for all that kind of carrying on.”
Jeremy’s story is a straightforward and blatant example of the ways in which young African Americans are still feeling the effects of the racism that has been ingrained in American culture. Nonetheless, Seth retains his strict mentality, showing Jeremy no sympathy at all, thereby further victimizing the young man in order to supposedly retain an air of respectability about his house—essentially expecting Jeremy to work around white racism, rather than holding whites accountable for the racism itself.
A knock sounds on the door, and a wearied looking man and his daughter appear in the kitchen. The man’s name is Herald Loomis, and he asks to rent a room from Seth. Wilson’s stage note describes Loomis as “a man driven not by the hellhounds that seemingly bay at his heels, but by his search for a world that speaks to something about himself. He is unable to harmonize the forces that swirl around him, and seeks to recreate the world into one that contains his image.” With Seth, Herald strikes a deal in which he and his daughter can stay in the boarding house for the week if he pays $2.50 and his daughter, Zonia, helps with the cooking and cleaning.
Wilson’s description of Herald once again calls upon the idea of a person’s internal “song,” though now he adds a new element, considering the ways in which this “song” interacts with the external world. Indeed, he says that Loomis is unable to “harmonize the forces that swirl around him,” indicating that the world is for some reason unwilling to accept the man’s identity (his “song”). Because of this, Loomis has to go out of his way to “recreate the world” around him so that it can accommodate him. This idea is at once sociological and existential—related to both the racist society Herald must find his way in and his most innate conception of himself as a human being existing in the world.
Bynum asks Herald where he and Zonia are coming from, and Herald says, “Come from all over. Whicheverway the road take us that’s the way we go.” He goes on to reveal that he’s looking for a woman named Martha Loomis—his wife. Seth says he knows several Marthas, but nobody with the last name Loomis, and Bynum suggests that Herald speak to Selig the following Saturday, telling him that the white man is a “first-class People Finder.” When Seth goes upstairs with Herald and Zonia to get them settled in, Bynum asks Jeremy what he’s going to do that night, but Jeremy says he’s too nervous to go out after the way he was treated the previous night. Ignoring this, Bynum tells Jeremy to take his guitar and go down to a nearby “gambling place,” where they hold guitar-playing competitions.
When Herald says he and Zonia have been traveling in any direction the road takes them, Wilson once again demonstrates just how much transience has worked its way into the lives of young African Americans in the decades following slavery. Loomis, though, isn’t looking for employment like the migrants Seth references in his earlier diatribe about travel and opportunity. Indeed, he’s searching for his wife, a more tangible reason to travel, though it’s rather strange to follow “whicheverway the road” goes as a way of tracking somebody down. On another note, Jeremy’s hesitancy to leave the house because of his negative experience with the police the previous night illustrates the very tangible ways racism can impact a person’s life.
Seth reenters the kitchen and says he thinks there’s something off about Herald. “I take him up there and try to talk to him and he ain’t for no talking…Say he been traveling…coming over from Ohio. Say he a deacon in the church. Say he looking for Martha Pentecost. Talking about that’s his wife.” Although Herald claims to be looking for a Martha Loomis, Seth is sure he’s referring to Martha Pentecost, a woman Seth knows who apparently looks just like Zonia. When Bertha asks if he told Herald he knows where his wife is, Seth says he didn’t, justifying his decision by remarking, “The way that fellow look I wasn’t gonna tell him nothing. I don’t know what he looking for her for.” As they talk about her father, Zonia comes into the kitchen and Bynum shows her the door to the backyard.
Seth again proves himself a judgmental person, someone quick to jump to conclusions about others. This mentality is perhaps the result of his relative success as a black man trying to make a stable living in a racist society; having established himself as a reliable businessman, he’s obsessed with making sure his house is seen as respectable (assuming a white audience). As such, he’s prone to making snap judgments about other people, especially if they seem even slightly out of step with what he believes is normal. What’s more, Herald Loomis represents the kind of black man Seth resents: a migrant wandering aimlessly out of the South.
A young woman named Mattie Campbell comes to the boarding house and asks to speak with Bynum. Sitting in the kitchen, she asks him if he can “fix things” the way people say he can, inquiring whether or not he can make her lover return to her. Bynum says he can indeed work his magic so that her lover, Jack Carper, can’t sleep until he sees her face, but that this might not be a good idea. “I can take my roots and fix that easy,” he says. “But maybe he ain’t supposed to come back…then he’ll be in your bed one morning and it’ll come up on him that he’s in the wrong place. That he’s lost outside of time from his place that he’s supposed to be in. Then both of you be lost and trapped outside of life and ain’t no way for you to get back into it.”
When Bynum says that Jack might not be “supposed to come back,” he implies by way of negation that certain things in life are “supposed” to happen. This is a deterministic way of thinking, a belief in a “grand design” that ultimately superimposes a greater sense of meaning and order on life. This is also in keeping with Bynum’s idea that each person has a “song” they must find within themselves, something that will add significance to life and give a person a sense of purpose. For Mattie to make Jack Carper come back, then, would mean singing the wrong “song,” ultimately further estranging her from what she’s “supposed” to do.
Mattie ignores Bynum’s warnings, pleading with him to make Jack Carper return to her. She explains that they were together for three years before he left. Before doing so, he called her cursed because they had two babies together, and both died in infancy. Hearing this, Bynum says Jack isn’t “bound” to Mattie if the babies died. “Look like somebody trying to keep you from being bound up and he’s gone on back to whoever it is ’cause he’s already bound up to her. Ain’t nothing to be done.” Declaring this, he advises Mattie to let Jack go. By way of consolation, he gives her a piece of cloth and tells her to keep it under her pillow for good luck.
Bynum elaborates on his assertion that Jack isn’t “supposed to come back” to Mattie. Indeed, he indicates that Jack has become part of somebody else’s “grand design,” having been “bound up” to a different woman. This, he says, is unsalvageable, but he still gives Mattie a piece of cloth for good luck. When he does so, the audience might naturally wonder if he truly believes this cloth will bring her luck, or if he gives it to her because he wants to offer her a way of feeling in control of her life. After all, hope is a powerful thing, something that can impose order on otherwise defeatist and chaotic situations. By giving Mattie something to invest her faith in, then, Bynum allows her to gain a sense of agency over her own life.
Before Mattie leaves, Jeremy catches her by the door and says he overheard her story. “Had me an old gal did that to me,” he says. “Woke up one morning and she was gone. Just took off to parts unknown. I woke up that morning and the only thing I could do was look around for my shoes. I woke up and got out of there. Found my shoes and took off. That’s the only thing I could think of to do.” As they bond over having been abandoned by their lovers, Jeremy starts complimenting Mattie on her looks, eventually saying, “A woman like you need a man. Maybe you let me be your man.” When Mattie expresses hesitation because she’s still waiting for Jack, Jeremy says they can pass the time together until he returns. They then decide to go on a date that night to Jeremy’s guitar competition.
Considering that Herald Loomis is also looking for his wife, it seems in this scene that the vast majority of characters in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone have been influenced by transience. Indeed, both Mattie and Jeremy have been left behind because their lovers decided to pick up and leave. This, it seems, inspires only more restlessness, as Jeremy indicates when he tells Mattie that his first impulse after his lover ran away was to run away himself. “That’s the only thing I could think of to do,” he says, suggesting that migration as a way of escaping unfavorable circumstances is cyclical, a method of responding to adversity that is almost contagious throughout the community.
In the backyard, Zonia meets a boy her age named Reuben, who lives next door. Reuben asks why she and Herald are living in Seth’s house, and Zonia tells him that they’re searching for her mother, who ran away. When Reuben asks why her mother ran away, she says, “I don’t know. My daddy say some man named Joe Turner did something bad to him once and that made her run away.” Reuben then expresses his hope that Zonia doesn’t leave too soon, since there aren’t any kids for him to play with these days because his friend Eugene died. Apparently, Eugene used to keep a horde of pigeons, which he sold one-by-one to Bynum for the old man’s rituals. Just before he died, Eugene told Reuben to let his pigeons free, but Reuben couldn’t stand to keep this promise and has instead continued to sell the pigeons to Bynum.
Reuben’s inability to set Eugene’s pigeons free aligns with the play’s interest in how people keep one another restricted. First, all the characters except Selig are inhibited by the racism surrounding them in their newly post-slavery nation. Second, even Bynum’s interest in “binding” people together suggests a certain restrictive quality, since to “bind” is to tie or fasten somebody or something to something else. As such, Reuben’s refusal to free Eugene’s pigeons is yet another example of how the characters conceive of true freedom, clearly seeing it as something that requires a herculean emotional effort, one that allows a person to overcome the sense of hesitation keeping them from embracing liberty and independence.
Herald comes into the backyard and interrupts Zonia and Reuben’s conversation, ordering her inside to take a bath. “Look at you,” he says. “You growing too fast. Your bones getting bigger everyday. I don’t want you getting grown on me. Don’t you get grown on me too soon. We gonna find your mamma. She around here somewhere. I can smell her.” When he goes back inside, Reuben says, “Wow, your daddy’s scary!”, remarking that Herald has “mean-looking eyes.” Seeing that he’s offended Zonia, he tells her he’s only kidding and offers to show her Eugene’s pigeons, at which point the two children run offstage as the lights go out.
When Reuben tells Zonia that her father is “scary” and that he has “mean-looking eyes,” the audience once again sees how Loomis must constantly contend with other people’s judgments. Indeed, even a small boy jumps to conclusions about Herald’s identity, assuming that he’s “mean” just because he looks weary. In the same way that Seth immediately decides Herald is shifty, Reuben judges him before allowing him to demonstrate who he really is. In turn, this aligns with the idea that Loomis has trouble “harmoniz[ing]” his internal song with the external world, which apparently keeps him from making a place for himself.