Now I can look at you, Mr. Loomis, and see you a man who done forgot his song. Forgot how to sing it. A fellow forget that and he forget who he is. Forget how he’s supposed to mark down life.
Bynum Walker to Herold Loomis, “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone:1911” – a play by August Wilson
I ran across an incredible play by August Wilson some years back that wouldn’t let go of my heart: “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.” Although it showcases the Black experience, there are treasures here that have universal application, and that can move a work from the category of good to that of great. I always wanted to share it with someone, but it was like taking an octopus by the arm: which one do I grab? — for there are so many jumping off points in its message.
I considered August Wilson (now deceased) and the framework in which he set the human spirit in his play “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.” This short documentary trailer is quite a few years old, but well worth it for understanding where Wilson was coming from and what he wanted to achieve. He was a unique figure in theatrical literature who should be remembered, not as just a great Black playwright, but as a great American playwright standing alongside the lineup of other greats.
Fearing I might be perceived as unqualified to comment on the universal aspects of a series written primarily about the Black experience, it was a little daunting to tackle the topic at all. I am game for a good gamble though. My efforts were rewarded, for I had apparently not missed the mark at all where actor Denzel Washington was concerned. The well-known film star struck a deal with HBO in 2015 to produce all ten of Wilson’s Century Cycle plays, one per year. Washington also saw the vast potential to take the playwright’s works beyond the localization of one people group:
His stories are specifically African American stories, but the themes are universal. Families, love, betrayal whatever the theme is. People relate and enjoy listening to or seeing his work. He was just a bright, brilliant shining light who was here and then he was gone, but his work will live forever to be interpreted by actors and directors for as long as we’re here.The Hollywood Reporter, Sept. 17, 2015
“Joe Turner” is only one of a series of ten plays from The August Wilson Century Cycle depicting the African-American experience in successive decades of the twentieth century. It was apparently Wilson’s favorite of them all. Its two main characters, Bynum Walker and Herald Loomis, stand in psychological opposition to one another, and through them we are introduced to the principal theme of the play, that of owning and holding fast to one’s purpose in life. It is the one thing that no one can steal unless we give them the power to do so.
The two-act play is set in a Pittsburgh boarding house in 1911. A number of minor characters come and go. Most are migrating North from the South, and looking for someone or something they’ve lost. None is as troubled and bitter as Herald Loomis who arrives with his daughter and a dark cloud hanging over him. He says he is seeking his wife, Martha Loomis, who disappeared some years before. As the play progresses, we learn that Loomis had been abducted by Joe Turner’s men to work on a chain gang for seven years. [Joe Turner was the brother of the governor of Tennessee, known for abducting Black men, forcing them to labor on his plantation.] Martha disappeared after that, leaving their daughter in the care of her maternal grandmother. After Loomis was released, he returned to find the daughter, and now he is looking for her mother.
Bynum, a diviner and spell caster, is the longest running resident of the boarding house. Rumor has it that he is able to find lost persons by means of his African rituals and incantations—and nearly everyone is seeking someone or something they’ve lost by means of his skills with root powders and pigeons’ blood. Yet Bynum discourages some would-be clients from employing his services at all. For, as he says in so many words, what they really need is to find the path they are supposed to be on. Even when the Lost One returns, he tells one hopeful lady, if he has left the path he is supposed to be on he will eventually awaken out of a fog and leave again. The principal thing is to find one’s own “song,” Bynum counsels, for that is what sets you on the road to everything needful. He describes in the course of the play how it happened for him.
One day while he was on the road, says Bynum, he saw a Shiny Man walking toward him from the opposite direction. The Shiny Man was hungry and Bynum gave him an orange to eat, after which this Shiny Man offered to show him “the secret of life.” Then the Shiny Man clasped Bynum’s hands together in his own, and when the Shiny Man took his hands off, Bynum saw that his own hands were covered in blood. The Shiny Man told him to rub the blood all over himself as a way of being cleansed. After that, Bynum saw a vision of his deceased father coming toward him, and his father gave him his song.
“I had the Binding Song,” says Bynum, contrasting that with his father who had the Healing Song. “I choose that song because that’s what I seen most when I was traveling . . . people walking away and leaving one another. So I takes the power of my song and binds them together. Been binding people ever since. That’s why they call me Bynum. Just like glue I sticks people together.”
Bynum’s song appears to have been an existential discovery, not a thing to be grasped at. And that is what he discerns at the heart of Herald Loomis’s real problem—not Joe Turner and not Martha Loomis. To me, Bynum’s brave interaction with the volatile Loomis captures the essence of this play.
“Now I used to travel all up and down, this road and that. . . looking here and there. Searching. Just like you, Mr. Loomis. I didn’t know what I was searching for. The only thing I knew was something was keeping me dissatisfied. Something wasn’t making my heart smooth and easy. Then one day my daddy gave me a song. I tried to find my daddy to give him back the song. That song had a weight to it that was hard to handle. That song was hard to carry. I fought against it. Didn’t want to accept that song.
I tried to find my daddy to give him back the song. But I found out it wasn’t his song. It was my song. It had come from way deep inside me. I looked long back in memory and gathered up pieces and snatches of things to make that song. I was making it up out of myself. And that song helped me on the road. Made it smooth to where my footsteps didn’t bite back at me. All the time that song getting bigger and bigger. That song growing with each step of the road. It got so I used all of myself up in the making of that song. Then I was the song in search of itself. That song rattling in my throat and I’m looking for it. See, Mr. Loomis, when a man forgets his song he goes off in search of it . . . till he finds out he’s got it with him all the time.”
Inside each person, whatever their circumstances or however they got there, resides an instinct, a “song” as it were, that marks out how they are to carry on their unique existence—even in the face of great opposition. That song transcends all else; it interprets our circumstances—if we can only remember to listen to it. For even if so many things appear to blow us off course, that song helps us return to ourselves, define ourselves according to the design of the Great Majesty and not according to the whims of other human beings who misunderstand us or even misuse us to their own selfish purposes.
List of August Wilson’s Century Cycle Plays, with Time and City Setting
- “Gem of the Ocean”—Pittsburgh, 1904
- “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone”—Pittsburgh, 1911
- “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”—Chicago, 1927
- “The Piano Lesson”—Pittsburgh, 1936
- “Seven Guitars”—Pittsburgh, late 1940s
- “Fences”—Pittsburgh, 1957
- “Two Trains Running”—Pittsburgh, 1969
- “Jitney”—Pittsburgh, 1977
- “King Hedley”—Pittsburgh, 1985
- “Radio Gold”—Pittsburgh, 1997