Joe Turner’s Come and Gone

August Wilson


Welcome to the vibrant and profound world of August Wilson’s “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” πŸ“˜πŸŽ­! Published in 1988, this play is a powerful piece in Wilson’s ten-part series, The Pittsburgh Cycle, which captures the African American experience in the 20th century, decade by decade. August Wilson, an iconic playwright, delves deep into themes of identity, migration, and the search for freedom within the African American community.

Set in 1911, in a Pittsburgh boarding house, “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” is a testament to Wilson’s talent for weaving rich narratives that explore the African American struggle and resilience. It’s not just a play; it’s a journey through the early 20th century African American life, exploring the impact of slavery and the Great Migration. As part of the broader genre of drama, this work stands out for its depth, character development, and the vivid picture it paints of its era. Get ready to explore the layers of history, emotion, and humanity that make this play an unforgettable experience. 🌟

Plot Summary

“Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” tells a compelling story of African Americans in the early 20th century grappling with their past and searching for a sense of belonging. Here’s how the drama unfolds:

Exposition β€” The play is set in a boarding house in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, owned by Seth Holly and his wife, Bertha. The house serves as a temporary home for people of African descent who are in transition, either moving up North, looking for lost relatives, or searching for new opportunities post the abolition of slavery.

Rising Action β€” Herald Loomis, a man haunted by his past of seven years’ bondage under Joe Turner, arrives at the boarding house with his young daughter, Zonia, searching for his wife, Martha, who he believes can restore his lost sense of identity. His presence and intense search introduce a sense of unease and anticipation among the boarding house residents.

Climax β€” The climax occurs during a juba dance in the boarding house, where the characters’ pent-up emotions and the African spirit intertwine, leading Loomis to confront his inner demons. This moment of spiritual and emotional upheaval forces Loomis to realize the depths of his own disconnection from his African roots and his intense need for self-reclamation.

Falling Action β€” After the juba, tensions within the boarding house begin to ease. Loomis’ confrontation with his past and his violent display of emotion prompt him to finally meet Martha, who has been found living nearby. Martha, now a devout Christian, cannot return to her old life with Loomis, leading him to understand that his journey is not about reclaiming his old life but about forging a new identity for himself and his daughter.

Resolution β€” The play concludes with Loomis cutting himself to bleed off his old identity, symbolically killing his old self to be reborn. He leaves the boarding house, no longer in search of Martha but with a new sense of freedom and self-understanding. The other characters are left to ponder their own searches and the meanings of their journeys, while the boarding house remains a beacon for those in transition.

This narrative is a powerful exploration of identity, freedom, and the human spirit’s resilience, embodying the collective struggle of African Americans to find their place in a world that has consistently tried to erase their past.

Character Analysis

“Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” boasts a rich tapestry of characters, each contributing to the play’s exploration of freedom, identity, and community. Here’s a closer look at the main characters:

  • Seth Holly β€” A second-generation free African American, Seth is the owner of the boarding house where much of the play’s action unfolds. Pragmatic and industrious, he is wary of newcomers and often skeptical of their intentions. Despite his gruff exterior, Seth’s boarding house is a crucial sanctuary for those transitioning to a new life.
  • Bertha Holly β€” Seth’s wife, Bertha, is the warm, nurturing heart of the boarding house. Her kitchen is a place of comfort and healing. She balances Seth’s skepticism with her open-heartedness, offering wisdom and support to their guests.
  • Herald Loomis β€” A haunted and intense man, Loomis is searching for his wife, Martha, after being unjustly imprisoned by Joe Turner for seven years. His quest is as much about finding Martha as it is about reclaiming his lost identity and humanity. Loomis’s journey is central to the play’s themes of healing and self-discovery.
  • Zonia Loomis β€” Herald’s young daughter, Zonia, accompanies him on his search. Innocent and curious, she represents the future and the possibility of new beginnings. Her friendship with Reuben, a local boy, hints at the potential for healing and hope.
  • Bynum Walker β€” A “conjure man” who lives at the boarding house, Bynum provides spiritual guidance to its residents. His beliefs in African spirituality and the binding song that connects people to their true selves play a pivotal role in the play. Bynum’s interactions with Loomis are crucial to the latter’s journey of self-discovery.
  • Martha Pentecost β€” Loomis’s estranged wife, Martha, has found a new life in the church. When she and Loomis finally reunite, it becomes clear that while she represents Loomis’s past, she cannot be part of his future. Her character underscores the theme of transformation and moving beyond past traumas.
  • Reuben Mercer β€” A young boy who befriends Zonia, Reuben represents the innocence and unburdened future of the next generation. His interactions with Zonia offer a contrast to the adult characters’ more complex searches for identity.
  • Rutherford Selig β€” A white peddler who frequents the boarding house, Selig is the “People Finder.” His character subtly addresses themes of migration and dislocation, as he aids African Americans in their searches for lost family members.

Here is a summary table of the character analysis:

Character NamePersonality TraitsMotivationsCharacter Development
Seth HollyPragmatic, industrious, skepticalTo maintain his business and protect his homeRemains cautious but shows moments of understanding and support
Bertha HollyWarm, nurturing, wiseTo provide comfort and healingConsistently serves as the emotional backbone of the community
Herald LoomisHaunted, intense, determinedTo find his wife and reclaim his identityUndergoes a profound transformation, finding a new sense of freedom
Zonia LoomisInnocent, curiousTo support her father and find her placeRepresents hope and the possibility of a new beginning
Bynum WalkerSpiritual, wise, mysteriousTo guide others in finding their “song”Acts as a catalyst for Loomis’s transformation
Martha PentecostDevout, reflectiveTo reconcile her past with her present faithRepresents the complexity of moving forward
Reuben MercerInnocent, friendlyTo make connections and find joy in lifeSymbolizes unburdened potential and future possibilities
Rutherford SeligResourceful, amiableTo connect people with their lost relativesHighlights themes of dislocation and the search for connection

Each character in “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” contributes uniquely to the overarching narrative, embodying the search for identity, the pain of separation, and the hope for renewal amidst the African American experience.

Themes and Symbols

“Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” is rich with themes and symbols that explore the African American experience, the quest for identity, and the significance of history and spirituality. Here are some of the major themes and symbols present in the play:


  • Search for Identity β€” The characters in the play are all, in some way, searching for their identities. This theme is most vividly embodied in Herald Loomis’s quest to find his wife and, through her, his own sense of self that was lost during his seven years of bondage. The play suggests that identity is deeply tied to one’s history, family, and community.
  • Effects of Slavery β€” Even though slavery has ended, its effects linger on in the lives of the characters. Joe Turner’s abduction of African American men, including Loomis, into forced labor is a reminder of the traumas of slavery that still haunt the present. The play explores how these traumas impact personal and communal identities.
  • Community and Belonging β€” The boarding house serves as a microcosm of the African American community during the Great Migration. It’s a place where characters from various backgrounds come together, each searching for a sense of belonging. The play underscores the importance of community in healing and finding one’s place in the world.
  • Spirituality and Connection β€” Bynum Walker’s spirituality introduces the theme of a deeper, mystical connection to ancestors and the past. The characters’ connections to their African roots and the spiritual world are significant in their journeys toward self-discovery and healing.


  • The Binding Song β€” Bynum talks about the “binding song,” a symbol for the connections that link individuals to their true identities and to each other. It represents the spiritual and cultural ties that bind the African American community together.
  • Joe Turner β€” Joe Turner himself, who is never seen in the play, symbolizes the oppressive forces of the past that continue to affect the present. His name evokes the trauma of being taken away from one’s life and identity, echoing the historical reality of slavery.
  • The Herald’s Shiny Suit β€” When Loomis arrives at the boarding house, he wears a shiny suit that he believes will make him whole and presentable to his wife. The suit symbolizes his search for identity and his desire to reclaim his dignity and place in the world.
  • The Ghosts β€” The presence of ghosts and spiritual entities in the play symbolizes the ever-present influence of the past on the present. These ghosts are reminders of the characters’ connections to their ancestors and the ongoing impact of historical traumas.

Through these themes and symbols, August Wilson’s “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” delves deep into the African American psyche, exploring the complexities of identity, the scars of history, and the power of community and spirituality in the journey toward self-discovery and healing.

Writing Style and Tone

August Wilson’s “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” showcases the playwright’s mastery in blending historical context with rich, character-driven narratives. His writing style and tone contribute significantly to the mood and atmosphere of the play, creating a vivid portrayal of African American life in the early 20th century. Here are some key aspects of Wilson’s writing style and tone:

  • Realistic Dialogue β€” Wilson’s use of dialect and vernacular speech brings authenticity to his characters, grounding the play in the reality of African American life. His dialogue is not just a means of communication between characters; it’s a tool that reveals their histories, dreams, and pains, enhancing the play’s emotional depth.
  • Symbolic Language β€” The play is infused with symbolism that adds layers of meaning to the narrative. Wilson’s language is rich with metaphors and allegories, from the binding song to the characters’ names themselves, which invite deeper exploration into the themes of identity, freedom, and connection.
  • Dramatic Tension β€” Wilson expertly builds tension through the interactions between characters and the unfolding of their stories. The tone shifts from hopeful to tense, reflecting the characters’ internal and external struggles. This tension is a driving force that keeps the audience engaged and underscores the play’s thematic concerns.
  • Spiritual Overtones β€” The tone of the play is heavily influenced by the spiritual and mystical elements present in the story. Wilson’s inclusion of African spiritual practices and beliefs imbues the narrative with a sense of wonder and depth, connecting the characters’ personal journeys to broader cultural and historical contexts.
  • Empathetic Portrayal β€” Throughout the play, Wilson maintains a tone of empathy and understanding toward his characters. Even as they face challenges and conflicts, the playwright portrays each character with dignity and depth, encouraging the audience to empathize with their struggles and triumphs.
  • Historical Context β€” Wilson’s writing is deeply rooted in the historical context of the Great Migration and the African American experience of the early 20th century. The tone of the play often reflects the tension between the past and the future, between bondage and freedom, imbuing the narrative with a sense of historical significance and urgency.

These elements of Wilson’s writing style and tone work together to create a powerful and immersive experience for the audience. “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” is not just a play; it’s a journey through the complexities of identity, community, and history, brought to life through Wilson’s skillful storytelling and nuanced understanding of the human spirit.

Literary Devices Used in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone

August Wilson’s “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” utilizes a rich array of literary devices that enhance the narrative and deepen the thematic resonance of the play. Here are the top 10 literary devices used in the play, highlighted for their significance and impact:

  1. Symbolism β€” Symbolism is pervasive throughout the play, with objects, names, and events imbued with deeper meanings. Symbols like Joe Turner, the shiny suit, and the binding song enrich the narrative by representing themes of freedom, identity, and connection.
  2. Metaphor β€” Wilson uses metaphors to draw comparisons that illuminate the characters’ experiences and emotions. The journey of Herald Loomis, for example, can be seen as a metaphor for the African American search for identity and belonging in a post-slavery society.
  3. Foreshadowing β€” Elements of foreshadowing hint at future events or revelations, creating suspense and adding layers to the storytelling. The mysterious behaviors and words of Bynum Walker often foreshadow key developments in the plot and character arcs.
  4. Allusion β€” The play contains allusions to historical events and figures, such as the reference to Joe Turner, a real-life figure who symbolizes the oppression and kidnapping of African Americans in the South. These allusions ground the play in its historical context and add depth to its exploration of themes.
  5. Imagery β€” Wilson’s use of vivid imagery brings the play’s settings and emotions to life. Descriptions of the boarding house, the characters, and the juba dance paint a rich picture of the world the characters inhabit and their internal landscapes.
  6. Personification β€” Personification is used to imbue objects and abstract concepts with human qualities, enhancing the play’s spiritual and mystical elements. For instance, the past is often personified as a haunting presence that influences the characters’ lives.
  7. Irony β€” Instances of irony, both situational and dramatic, highlight the complexities and contradictions in the characters’ journeys. The irony of searching for freedom while being trapped by one’s own past is a recurring theme in the play.
  8. Repetition β€” Repetition is used for emphasis and to underscore key themes and motifs. The repeated references to Joe Turner and the concept of “binding” serve to reinforce the play’s exploration of bondage and liberation.
  9. Dialogue β€” Wilson’s dialogue is not just a means of communication between characters; it’s a rich literary device that reveals character, advances the plot, and encapsulates the play’s themes. The authentic use of African American vernacular speech adds realism and depth to the narrative.
  10. Dramatic Monologue β€” Several characters, especially Bynum and Loomis, deliver dramatic monologues that reveal their innermost thoughts and desires. These monologues are powerful tools for character development and theme exploration.

Each of these literary devices plays a crucial role in shaping “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” making it a multifaceted exploration of the African American experience, identity, and the quest for freedom.

Literary Devices Examples

To illustrate the use of literary devices in “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” here are examples and explanations for each of the top 10 devices highlighted:


Joe Turner

  • Example: Joe Turner’s representation of historical oppression.
  • Explanation: Joe Turner symbolizes the systemic racial injustices that African Americans continued to face post-slavery, embodying the lingering traumas of bondage.

The Shiny Suit

  • Example: Herald Loomis’s shiny suit he wears to find his wife.
  • Explanation: The suit symbolizes Loomis’s desire for renewal and dignity, representing his quest for identity and wholeness after years of being lost.

The Binding Song

  • Example: Bynum’s belief in the binding song that connects individuals to their true selves.
  • Explanation: This song represents the spiritual and cultural ties that link the African American community to their ancestors and to each other, emphasizing the importance of connection and identity.


Loomis’s Journey

  • Example: The narrative of Herald Loomis’s search for his wife.
  • Explanation: Loomis’s search is a metaphor for the African American quest for identity and belonging in a society that has stripped them of their heritage and humanity.


Bynum’s Visions

  • Example: Bynum’s early mention of seeing a “shiny man” who will find his song.
  • Explanation: This foreshadows Herald Loomis’s arrival and his eventual transformation, hinting at the spiritual journey Loomis will undertake.


Reference to Joe Turner

  • Example: The repeated mentions of Joe Turner throughout the play.
  • Explanation: This alludes to the historical figure Joe Turney, reflecting on the real-life practices of enslavement and forced labor, grounding the play’s themes in historical reality.


The Boarding House

  • Example: Descriptive passages about the life and atmosphere in the boarding house.
  • Explanation: These vivid descriptions create a tangible sense of place and community, highlighting the boarding house as a microcosm of African American society during the Great Migration.


The Past

  • Example: The past is often described as haunting the characters, influencing their actions and decisions.
  • Explanation: By giving the past human-like qualities, Wilson emphasizes its power and presence in the characters’ lives, showing how history shapes identity.


Search for Freedom

  • Example: Characters seeking freedom while being metaphorically imprisoned by their pasts.
  • Explanation: This situational irony highlights the complex nature of freedom and the challenges of escaping the psychological chains of history.


Joe Turner’s Name

  • Example: The repeated invocation of Joe Turner’s name.
  • Explanation: This repetition reinforces the play’s exploration of the lingering effects of slavery and oppression, making Turner a symbol of the characters’ shared trauma.


Vernacular Speech

  • Example: The authentic use of African American vernacular throughout the play.
  • Explanation: This dialogue not only lends realism to the characters but also serves as a literary device that reflects the play’s themes of identity and community.

Dramatic Monologue

Herald Loomis’s Final Monologue

  • Example: Loomis’s powerful monologue before his symbolic rebirth.
  • Explanation: This monologue reveals Loomis’s inner turmoil and his resolution to find a new identity, highlighting his transformation and the play’s themes of renewal and self-discovery.

Through these examples, August Wilson’s use of literary devices in “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” is shown to deepen the narrative, enrich the characters, and amplify the play’s thematic concerns, making it a poignant and multifaceted exploration of the African American experience.

Joe Turner’s Come and Gone – FAQs

What is “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” about? “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” is a play by August Wilson that explores the African American experience in the early 20th century, focusing on characters in a Pittsburgh boarding house who are searching for their identities and places in the world after the end of slavery.

Who is Joe Turner in the play? Joe Turner, referenced in the title, was a real historical figure who symbolizes the oppression of African Americans. In the play, he represents the person who kidnapped Herald Loomis and forced him into seven years of labor, reflecting the broader theme of African Americans’ search for freedom and identity.

What themes are explored in “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone”? The play delves into themes such as the search for identity, the effects of slavery, community and belonging, and spirituality and connection. These themes are explored through the personal journeys of the characters as they navigate their pasts and futures.

How does August Wilson use symbolism in the play? Wilson uses various symbols, such as Joe Turner, the shiny suit, and the binding song, to enrich the narrative. These symbols represent themes of oppression, the quest for dignity, and the spiritual and cultural ties that bind the African American community together.

What is the significance of the boarding house setting in the play? The boarding house serves as a microcosm of the African American community during the Great Migration. It is a place of transition, where characters from different backgrounds come together, each searching for a sense of belonging and identity.

How does the play address the impact of slavery on its characters? Through the characters’ stories, particularly Herald Loomis’s experience with Joe Turner, the play addresses the lingering traumas and psychological effects of slavery, highlighting how its legacy continues to influence the lives of African Americans.

What role does spirituality play in “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone”? Spirituality is central to the play, with characters like Bynum Walker emphasizing the importance of connecting to one’s roots and ancestors. The spiritual beliefs and practices depicted in the play reflect the characters’ quest for identity and connection.

How does “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” fit within August Wilson’s body of work? The play is part of Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle, a series of ten plays that explore the African American experience across different decades. “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” represents the 1910s, focusing on themes of migration, identity, and the search for freedom.

Can “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” be seen as a historical play? Yes, while it delves into universal themes of identity and belonging, the play is deeply rooted in the historical context of the African American experience during the early 20th century, making it a significant historical and cultural work.

What makes “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” relevant today? The play’s exploration of identity, freedom, and the effects of historical trauma remains profoundly relevant, reflecting ongoing discussions about race, heritage, and the search for a sense of belonging in contemporary society.


Who is the playwright of “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone”?Tennessee WilliamsAugust WilsonArthur MillerLorraine Hansberry
What is the primary setting of the play?A factory in ChicagoA farm in the SouthA boarding house in PittsburghA school in New York
Who is searching for his lost wife in the play?Seth HollyBynum WalkerHerald LoomisRutherford Selig
What does Joe Turner symbolize in the play?The struggle for civil rightsThe oppression of African AmericansEconomic hardshipThe American Dream
What significant event does the character Bynum witness that changes Herald Loomis?A fight in the boarding houseA juba danceA sermon at the churchA reunion with his wife
Which character provides spiritual guidance and believes in the binding song?Martha PentecostSeth HollyBynum WalkerBertha Holly
What does Herald Loomis do at the end of the play to signify his transformation?Leaves PittsburghReunites with his wifeCuts himself to bleed off his old identityBecomes a preacher
In which decade is the play set?1920s1910s1930s1940s
What theme is NOT explicitly explored in the play?ImmigrationSearch for identityEffects of slaveryCommunity and belonging
Who helps characters find lost relatives?Bertha HollyRutherford SeligHerald LoomisBynum Walker

This quiz is designed to test your comprehension and understanding of key elements, characters, and themes within “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.” Each question focuses on different aspects of the play, including its plot, symbolism, themes, and historical context.


Identify the literary devices used in the following paragraph from “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone”:

“Bynum Walker, the conjure man, spoke of the binding song, a melody that wrapped around your soul and connected you to your true self, to your past, and to those who walked before you. He talked about the spirits that danced in the shadows, whispering secrets from the old times, secrets that hummed in the blood and lived in the bones. This wasn’t just talk; it was a way of understanding the world, a way of connecting with something greater than oneself, something deeply rooted in the African heritage and carried across oceans of sorrow and time.”


  1. Symbolism: The “binding song” symbolizes the connections that link individuals to their identity, history, and community. It represents the spiritual and cultural heritage of African Americans.
  2. Imagery: Descriptions of the spirits dancing in the shadows and secrets humming in the blood create vivid mental images that evoke the mystical and spiritual aspects of African heritage.
  3. Allusion: References to “old times” and “oceans of sorrow and time” allude to the history of slavery and the Middle Passage, highlighting the historical and emotional journey of African Americans.
  4. Personification: The secrets are described as “whispering” and “humming,” giving them human qualities and enhancing the mystical atmosphere.
  5. Metaphor: The entire passage can be seen as a metaphor for the African American experience of connecting with one’s roots and the collective memory of the community.

This exercise aims to enhance your ability to spot and understand the literary devices that August Wilson employs in “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” enriching the play’s narrative and thematic depth.