Joe Turner’s Come and Gone

by

August Wilson

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Joe Turner’s Come and Gone: Act Two: Scene Five Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
It is Saturday morning, and Bertha is making breakfast while Bynum, Herald, and Zonia sit at the table waiting for Selig to arrive. It’s raining outside, and Bynum posits that the roads have washed out, making it harder for Selig to travel. As they wait, Mattie comes downstairs and sits down, asking Loomis where he’s going to go. “We gonna see where the road take us,” he says. He then tells his daughter that they have to get going, and moves toward the door. Before they do so, Mattie gives Zonia a ribbon to match her dress, then turns to Loomis and says, “I hope you find her. I hope you be happy.” Before he leaves, he says, “A man looking for a woman be lucky to find you. You a good woman, Mattie. Keep a good heart.”
Once again, transience and migration come to the forefront of Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, this time manifesting in the way Herald wraps his head around being forced to leave the boarding house. Indeed, he embraces that he and Zonia must leave, asserting almost optimistically—or at least not particularly begrudgingly—that they’re going to “see where the road take[s]” them. For a man who’s traveled for four years in search of his wife, the prospect of taking to the road again is natural, thus showing that transience is something to which a person can become accustomed.
Themes
Migration and Transience Theme Icon
After Herald and Zonia leave, Bertha remarks that his behavior toward Mattie was “the closest [she] come to seeing him act civilized.” Turning to Mattie, she says, “I don’t know what’s between you all, Mattie…but the only thing that man needs is somebody to make him laugh. That’s all you need in the world is love and laughter.” Demonstrating this to her tenants, she erupts in euphoric, crazed laughter. Wilson notes that she “moves about the kitchen as though blessing it and chasing away the huge sadness that seems to envelop it. It is a dance and demonstration of her own magic, her own remedy that is centuries old and to which she is connected by the muscles of her heart and the blood’s memory.” Her laughter, he writes, is like a “celebration of life, both its pain and its blessing.”
Bertha again emerges as a well-balanced person who’s in touch with both the practical side of life and the emotional and spiritual elements of existence. She doesn’t commit herself to just one way of being like Seth or Bynum, but rather allows herself to draw upon a range of belief, thereby absorbing life and finding herself capable of making it into a “celebration” of sorts. Wilson indicates this when he says that she blesses the kitchen with her “own magic,” suggesting that while somebody like Bynum borrows his craft from a folk tradition, Bertha creates a unique blend of her own, one naturally embedded in the “muscles of her heart.”
Themes
Spirituality Theme Icon
As Bertha, Bynum, and Mattie laugh, Seth enters and joins their hysterics. Eventually, he says that Herald is standing on the corner, just watching the house. At that moment, Selig appears with Martha Loomis (also known as Martha Pentecost), who’s dressed “as befitting a member of an Evangelist church.” Bynum exclaims that Selig is “a sure enough first-class People Finder,” and Selig says he found Martha living by the church just outside town. Martha asks where her husband and daughter are, and as Seth begins to explain, the door opens and Herald and Zonia appear onstage. They say hello, and Herald says, “You ain’t waited for me, Martha. I got out the place looking to see your face.” In response, Martha promises him she’s been looking for him. “I wasn’t but two months behind you when you went to my mama’s and got Zonia,” she says.
Finally, Herald has found Martha and is able to look upon her face, thus beginning the process of making his “own world.” And although the audience might expect him to be overjoyed in this moment, he doesn’t embrace his long-lost wife. In fact, he speaks rather resentfully, accusing her of running away and not waiting for him to be released from the captivity of Joe Turner. As such, it slowly becomes clear that Loomis’s goal of seeing Martha’s face and making his “own world” most likely has nothing to do with simply enabling him to pick up where he left off in his old life—rather, he seems to want closure before moving on with the rest of his life.
Themes
Migration and Transience Theme Icon
Identity Theme Icon
Herald accuses Martha of leaving his daughter “motherless in the world,” but Martha insists she never intended to do so. She tells him their reverend decided to move the church north, and since she didn’t know if the journey would be safe, she left Zonia with the girl’s grandmother with the intention of fetching her once she got settled in the North. By the time she returned, though, Herald had already collected Zonia. “Herald,” she says, “I didn’t know if you was ever coming back. They told me Joe Turner had you and my whole world split half in two.”
The fact that Herald accuses Martha of leaving Zonia “motherless in the world” only further supports the notion that his desire to reunite with his wife has nothing to do with wanting to happily resume their married life. This, it seems, is not a blissful encounter, but a confrontation, one in which Herald can finally settle the matters that have clearly been plaguing his mind since he escaped Joe Turner.
Themes
Migration and Transience Theme Icon
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Herald’s disappearance was so painful, Martha explains, that she had to tell herself he’d died. “Even if you weren’t,” she says, “you was dead to me. I wasn’t gonna carry you with me no more. So I killed you in my heart. I buried you. I mourned you. And then I picked up what was left and went on to make my life without you.” Having said this, she adds, “I was a young woman with life at my beckon. I couldn’t drag you behind me like a sack of cotton.”
Martha’s harsh words surely must cut straight to Herald’s core, since her ability to move on from the painful past is essentially an example of the kind of emotional reparation Herald himself is trying to undergo. Indeed, she “killed” him in her heart so that she could thrive in her present reality, something he needs to do for himself in order to unburden himself from a personal history of oppression. Of course, racism and hate aren’t so easily erased, something Herald most likely knows, considering that he’s had so much trouble putting his life back together after Joe Turner violated his supposedly inalienable human rights. It’s also worth noting that Martha compares carrying Herald’s memory around to dragging a “sack of cotton,” as this image is charged with the history of slavery, since slaves often labored in cotton fields. As such, Martha conflates the burden of romantic memory with the ugly history of slavery and oppression.
Themes
Migration and Transience Theme Icon
Racism in Post-Slavery America Theme Icon
Herald listens to Martha’s explanation and says he’s been waiting years to see her face to say his goodbye. “That goodbye got so big at times,” he says, “seem like it was gonna swallow me up.” He asserts that this need to say goodbye to his wife kept him “bound up to the road.” Now, though, he can finally finish this process; “Now that I see your face I can say my goodbye and make my own world,” he says. Taking Zonia’s hand, he leads his daughter to her mother, saying she needs to live with Martha so that she can learn from both her mother and father and thus avoid being a “one-sided person.” Despite Herald’s instructions, Zonia clings to her father, shouting, “I won’t get no bigger! My bones won’t get no bigger! […] Take me with you till we keep searching and never finding.”
When Zonia says, “Take me with you till we keep searching and never finding,” she illustrates how a lifestyle of transience and constant migration often regenerates itself, creating a never-ending cycle of travel. In turn, the process of searching becomes more important than the actual process of finding. Indeed, Zonia wants to “keep searching and never finding” because this is the way she has lived the past four years—years that have clearly formed her worldview and instilled in her a desire to roam from town to town with her beloved (if misunderstood) father.
Themes
Migration and Transience Theme Icon
Identity Theme Icon
Martha comforts Zonia and turns to Bynum, thanking him. Seeing this, Herald erupts. “It was you!” he says. “All the time it was you that bind me up! You bound me to that road!” In response, Bynum says, “I ain’t bind you, Herald Loomis. You can’t bind what don’t cling.” Still, Herald doesn’t believe him. “Everywhere I go people wanna bind me up,” he says. “Joe Turner wanna bind me up! […] You wanna bind me up. Everybody wanna bind me up. Well, Joe Turner’s come and gone and Herald Loomis ain’t for no binding. I ain’t gonna let nobody bind me up!” With this, he suddenly takes out a knife as Bynum explains that it wasn’t Loomis who he bound to Martha, but Zonia. “That’s who I bound,” he says. “You binding yourself. You bound onto your song. All you got to do is stand up and sing it.” 
In this moment, Herald interprets Bynum’s ability to unite people with one another as a restrictive and oppressive practice, something that inhibits his sense of freedom. Interestingly enough, he accuses Bynum not of binding him to Martha, but to the road, suggesting that he resents the restless travel and endless searching he’s had to indulge for the past four years. However, Bynum points out that Herald is actually the one keeping himself “bound” up, since he’s seemingly inextricably linked to his song—a song he can’t manage to “stand up and sing.” It isn’t until Herald finally manages to “harmonize” this song with the external world that he’ll be able to stop searching for it.
Themes
Migration and Transience Theme Icon
Racism in Post-Slavery America Theme Icon
Identity Theme Icon
Spirituality Theme Icon
Bynum tells Herald that if he can “stand up and sing” his song, he’ll finally be free. At this point, Martha implores Herald to get ahold of himself, pointing out his apparent savagery. “You gone over to the devil,” she says, and tries to bring him back to religion by quoting the Bible. As she references Jesus and the Lord, Loomis offers a running commentary, critiquing her faith in a worldview that invites subordination and oppression. “Great big old white man,” he responds to her sermonizing, “…your Mr. Jesus Christ. Standing there with a whip in one hand and tote board in another, and them niggers swimming in a sea of cotton.” Still, Martha insists that Herald needs to find God, saying, “You got to be clean, Herald. You got to be washed with the blood of the lamb,” telling him that Jesus bled for him.
During his conversation with Martha, Herald once again expresses his skepticism about religion and his strong aversion to God’s almightiness. Railing against Jesus and God by emphasizing their white and domineering qualities, he frames Christianity as something used to subordinate black people. Throughout this argument, it becomes overwhelmingly apparent how different he and Martha have become. Although Herald was presumably a devoted Christian at one point in his life—judging by the fact that he was a deacon before Joe Turner captured him—he now can’t stand the mere idea of submitting himself to religion. Martha, on the other hand, has remained faithful to the church, and their differences emphasize just how much Herald’s experience as one of Joe Turner’s captives has changed him. 
Themes
Racism in Post-Slavery America Theme Icon
Identity Theme Icon
Spirituality Theme Icon
Herald asserts that he doesn’t need anybody to bleed for him, since he can do so for himself. In response, Martha says, “You got to be something, Herald! You just can’t be alive. Life don’t mean nothing unless it got a meaning.” Rejecting this, Loomis asks, “What kind of meaning you got? What kind of clean you got, woman? You want blood? Blood make you clean?” At this, he runs the knife across his chest and rubs his own blood on his face. Wilson notes that, in doing so, Loomis comes to a sudden “realization.” “I’m standing!” the blood-covered man shouts. “I’m standing. My legs stood up! I’m standing now!” 
When Herald slashes himself across the chest and rubs blood over himself, the audience is reminded of Bynum’s story of the shiny man, who made Bynum hold out his hands and smear blood over his body before he finally had his vision. This, the shiny man had explained to him, was a way of cleansing himself. As such, Herald seems to have cleansed himself with his own blood, thereby gaining a sense of agency that allows him to finally “stand” (seemingly a reference to his earlier vision, in which he was unable to get up). In turn, he validates his own claim that he doesn’t need Jesus to bleed for him, since his sudden epiphany comes as the result of his decision to bleed for himself, an act of autonomy and self-possession.
Themes
Migration and Transience Theme Icon
Racism in Post-Slavery America Theme Icon
Identity Theme Icon
Spirituality Theme Icon
At this point, Wilson provides a detailed note, establishing that Herald Loomis has finally “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 […]” Suddenly free from his own struggles, Loomis says the fateful words he’s been waiting to utter for years: “Goodbye, Martha.” Having said this, he turns and makes his exit, and as Mattie runs to join him, Bynum calls out, “Herald Loomis, you shining! You shining like new money!”
In keeping with his assertion that he has finally managed to stand on his own two legs, Herald Loomis manages in this moment to attain a sense of “self-sufficiency,” which enables him to free himself from “encumbrance[s]” like the memory of Joe Turner. Metaphorically speaking, the fact that Herald is able to stand suggests that he has, after all this time, found a foothold in the chaotic new world order brought on by the fall of slavery, a significant accomplishment considering that he was previously so scarred by America’s racist history and his own embattled past that he couldn’t even remember how to “touch” another human. In addition, when Bynum yells out that Herald is “shining,” the audience learns why these two men have had such a close spiritual connection throughout the play: Herald is one of the shiny men Bynum has been searching for ever since his father told him that seeing another shiny man would mean that his (Bynum’s) song had been accepted. Now that he’s met Herald, then, he knows he can lie down and die a happy man.
Themes
Migration and Transience Theme Icon
Racism in Post-Slavery America Theme Icon
Identity Theme Icon
Spirituality Theme Icon