Joe Turner's Come and Gone - Study Guide Act 1, Scene 1 Summary & Analysis

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This section contains 1,135 words
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Act 1, Scene 1 Summary

Joe Turner's Come and Gone is a two-act play about the events and tensions among the owners and boarders in Bertha and Seth Holly's rooming house in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1911.

It is a steamy August Saturday when the play opens. Bertha Holly is preparing breakfast in the kitchen of the boardinghouse she owns with her husband, Seth. Seth Holly, an "ornery man in his fifties," looks out the kitchen window; he is watching one of their boarders, Bynum Walker, a conjure man, who is someone who invokes spirits and potions with the intent of bringing about results. Seth cannot understand Bynum's mysterious ways and is startled to see Bynum in another ritual, which involves killing a pigeon and burying it as a prayer to the gods to bless the Holly house.

When Bynum finishes his ritual, he joins Bertha and Seth in the kitchen and the conversation turns to the youngest and newest boarder in the house, Jeremy Furlow, who has some problems with alcohol. Jeremy has recently moved from the South looking for work and is just one of the many people of all races migrating from the depressed South to look for new lives in the Northern states.

Negroes who are former slaves head North, thinking that their plights will be improved when they arrive, but jobs are scarce and competing with white people puts the Negroes in dismal situations with little to hope for in the future.

Each Saturday, Rutherford Selig, a river town peddler, stops in at the Holly boardinghouse to talk and do business with Seth, who makes pots and pans and other metal objects. Selig provides the tin and other metals, and then buys Seth's goods to sell to the people who live up and down the Monongahela River.

Selig is also known as a people finder because he travels so much and talks to so many people along the way. Selig finds it particularly difficult to keep track of the Negroes in the area because they move around so much; however, he prides himself on being able to locate anyone who may be in the area. One dollar is all Selig charges to find a person, and Bynum has paid to have Selig find what Bynum calls the "shiny man," whom he met on the road one night and who promised to tell Bynum the secret of life.

Bynum shares the story of his encounter with the shiny man, wherein the man leads Bynum around a bend in the road so that Bynum can meet his dead father. Bynum's dead father then tells Bynum how to find his own song in life. Bynum's father shares the "Binding Song," which gives Bynum his own identity as being able to bind people together as if they are glued. Selig is not sure if Bynum's encounter with the shiny man is real or just another of the old man's visions; nevertheless, Selig promises to keep on the lookout for this shiny man.

Young Jeremy comes downstairs and shares the difficult night he has had, having been arrested for drinking and being out too late. It sounds to Seth as if Jeremy has been unfairly treated, but Seth admonishes Jeremy not to make any more trouble. Seth does not need any negative publicity cast upon his boardinghouse because of the foolish behavior of his boarders.

The housemates assembled in the kitchen are interrupted by a knock at the door. A man named Herald Loomis accompanied by his young daughter, Zonia has arrived. Herald is looking for his wife, Martha Loomis, and he and Zonia request a room for a couple of weeks as Herald conducts a search in the area. Bynum suggests that Herald hire Selig for help finding Martha.

Seth escorts Herald and Zonia upstairs to their room and returns to the kitchen where Selig shares that he knows a woman named Martha Pentecost, who very well may be Martha Loomis, but Selig is concerned about telling Herald because Herald looks a little threatening.

Another knock at the door brings Mattie Campbell, a young black woman who is looking for Bynum in the hopes that Bynum can find Jack Carper, the man who has run out on Mattie. Mattie wants a spell to make Jack come back to her, because she believes Bynum can bind people together. Bynum hesitates because his binding song can only bind people who are already together, so he suggests to Mattie that perhaps she and Jack are not intended to be together. Bynum gives Mattie a charm to put under her pillow so that she can wipe Jack out of her mind while she sleeps.

Jeremy witnesses this encounter and is intrigued by Mattie. He offers to be her man until Jack returns. Mattie is ready to take a chance, and she leaves to prepare for her date with Jeremy.

Outside in the yard, Zonia has found a new friend named Reuben, a young boy from the neighborhood. Zonia explains to Reuben that she and her father have been traveling for a long time trying to find her mother. Herald calls out to remind Zonia not to stray away from the house, and Reuben comments that Zonia's father has mean eyes. Reuben distracts Zonia by offering to show her the pigeons he keeps in memory of his dead friend.

Act 1, Scene 1 Analysis

The author introduces the theme of lost identity in this scene. The black men who have migrated from the South are trying to recover a sense of who they are and come to the North hopeful for answers. It is notable that the author places the boardinghouse in Pittsburgh because it is historically a city to which many blacks migrated for its industrial economy. The city represents a hope for a better life and the establishment of new roots and a new identity.

Identity is important to all of the characters in the play because it is the early 1900s and the ravages of slavery during the Civil War still haunt the country, particularly in the South. Bynum hangs onto the image of his dead father, who tries to provide Bynum with a sense of himself. Jeremy, representative all young blacks, suffers from restlessness and lack of place, which forces him to wander in search of himself. Herald and Zonia most directly represent the concept of searching, with their quest for Martha being conducted as if the two cannot be complete again until reunited with Martha. Likewise, Mattie feels incomplete without Jack and yearns to have him return so that she can resume the life she knew.

The introduction of Selig, whose secondary job is that of a people finder, and Bynum, whose secondary vocation is that of a people binder, is important because they represent positive forces in restoring the people, relationships, and some sense of security that the wandering characters crave.

This section contains 1,135 words
(approx. 3 pages at 400 words per page)
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Drama for Students
Joe Turner's Come and Gone from Drama for Students. ©2005-2006 Thomson Gale, a part of the Thomson Corporation. All rights reserved.