Joe Turner's Come and Gone Essay

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Poquette has a bachelor's degree in English and specializes in writing about literature. In the following essay, Poquette analyzes the significance of names in Wilson's Joe Turner's Come and Gone.

At one point in Wilson's play, Joe Turner's Come and Gone, the boy who lives next door to the boardinghouse, Reuben Scott, questions the meaning of the name of Herald's daughter, Zonia, saying, "What kind of name is that?" Although the name Zonia does not have a traditional translation, this focus on names is representative of Wilson's technique in the play, where names play an important role. When playwrights choose names for their characters, the choice sometimes helps to influence the story or underscore a message that the playwright wishes to get across. In the case of Joe Turner's Come and Gone, the emphasis on names is both overt and subtle. Wilson uses both specific names and the general concept of naming to underscore the main theme of the search for an African-American identity.

Several characters in the play have distinctive names that invite attention. This is first noticeable with Bynum Walker in the first scene, where Bynum refers to the vision that he had when he was younger. During the vision, Bynum is granted the gift of "the Binding Song," his own personal song, which gives him the power to bind people together, making it easier for wanderers to find their lost family members. As Bynum notes, "Been binding people ever since. That's why they call me Bynum. Just like glue I sticks people together." Bynum is not the character's real name, but it is one that he has adopted since it symbolizes his purpose in life. In her 1999 book, Understanding August Wilson, Mary L. Bogumil notes the significance of names in the play. Says Bogumil, "some of the characters' names exemplify their internal and external struggles." Bogumil is one of many critics who note that in the case of Bynum, his last name, Walker, underscores Bynum's former status as one of the migratory African Americans, who walked around the country, aimlessly searching for an identity. Seth remarks on Bynum's migratory nature: "I done seen a hundred niggers like him. He's one of them fellows never could stay in one place. He was wandering all around the country till he got old and settled here."

Bynum is not the only character whose name is deliberately intended to signify a purpose or greater meaning. Herald Loomis's first name is also very distinctive, because of its spelling. Normally, the name Herald would be spelled, "Harold." The use of the more unusual spelling draws attention to the name and leads to the interpretation of Herald as a literal herald—somebody who announces something. In this case, Herald's transformation in the play announces a new era of black awareness. Herald is able to transcend his painful slave past by reconnecting with his African heritage. In the process, he becomes a shiny man—the metaphor that Wilson uses in this play to signify a self-sufficient African-American person.

As Peter Wolfe notes in his 1999 book, August Wilson, Wilson himself has talked about the significance of Herald's name. Says Wolfe, "When asked by a theater critic from the New York Post about the origins of Loomis's name, Wilson said, 'Herald, because he's a herald. Loomis because he's luminous."' However, since this is theater, where many people hear the name before they read it, the phonetic sound of the name, "Harold," is just as important as the spelling. Harold is a name that, in most cultures, means a warrior, somebody who is a strong fighter. This is an appropriate designation for Herald, since the play concerns his ability to embrace the painful collective past of African Americans, find the strength to "stand up," and move on.

Martha, Herald's wife, also has a distinctive last name, in this case the new name of Pentecost. The Pentecost is a Christian feast that is held to celebrate the Holy Spirit's descent to the apostles. This extremely religious last name serves two purposes. First, it indicates that the Martha that Herald knew is dead, a fact that Martha indicates when she tells Herald that she waited five years for him before moving on with her life. Says Martha: "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 life without you." Just as Martha's name invokes the name of the Holy Ghost, it also implies the death of both her marriage and her former identity. As Anne Fleche notes in her 1994 essay, "The History Lesson: Authenticity and Anachronism in August Wilson's Plays," "when Martha shows up she's like a ghost (her new name is 'Pentecost'), and it's too late for her and Loomis."

In addition to underscoring the death of Martha's old identity, her last name sets her up as Herald's main opponent, and sets up Christianity as the main opponent of African Americans who are in search of their own identity. In the play, Herald denounces Christianity, starting with his interruption of the juba dance which mentions the Holy Ghost. Says Herald to the others, "You singing for the Holy Ghost to come? What he gonna do, huh? He gonna come with tongues of fire to burn up your woolly heads?" When Martha arrives at the end of the play, she tries to get Herald to embrace Christianity, and quotes Bible passages to support the idea that Jesus Christ will save Herald. However, Herald's response indicates that he is not interested in salvation in the next life; he wants equality in this life, and does not think he will get it from the white man's god. Says Herald: "Great big old white man . . . 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." Since Christianity supported slavery, Herald cannot bring himself to follow it. In fact, his final act denounces the belief that Christ bled for humanity's sins. Martha tells Herald that he must "be washed with the blood of the lamb." This idea of blood inspires Herald to use his own blood to wash himself clean, and he slashes his chest in an act that both defies Martha's Christianity and affirms Herald's belief in himself.

Bynum, Herald, and Martha all have names that have overt meanings. In other cases, the meanings of the names are subtler. For example, Jeremy Furlow is a wanderer, like Bynum, and like many others of his time. If one ignores the spelling of Jeremy's last name and pronounces it as "furlough," the name is given added meaning. A furlough is a leave of absence. This fits with Jeremy's nature, since he would rather leave any situation that intrudes on his lifestyle. Life is a constant vacation for Jeremy, who would rather live a life of wandering than settle down with a job and a family. When Jeremy gets fired from his job, he is happy, because he does not want to be tied down. He proposes that he and Molly travel together, but Molly notes that Jeremy is with Mattie. Says Jeremy, "I was just keeping her company 'cause she lonely. You ain't the lonely kind. You the kind that know what she want and how to get it." As Jeremy indicates to Molly, the hedonistic or pleasure-seeking lifestyle—something that Molly is used to—appeals to him. Says Jeremy, "I need a woman like you to travel around with."

Other character names that have subtle meanings include Seth and Bertha Holly, whose last name has two meanings. First, a holly is a type of shrub. In a play where many of the characters travel around searching for their identities, the Holly's boardinghouse becomes a place for them to get their bearings, and in some cases, guidance. Like a shrub, the Hollys have set down roots, and their stability and immobility is a sharp contrast to the migratory nature of the others. Traditionally, holly is also another word for holy, which once again underscores the religious nature of the play and the desire for Seth, especially, to live a holy, respectable life. When Herald first comes to Seth's boardinghouse, looking for Martha, Seth does not believe that he could be married to Martha. Says Seth: "Martha's a good Christian woman. This fellow here look like he owe the devil a day's work and he's trying to figure out how he gonna pay him."

In the case of Mattie Campbell and Molly Cunningham, the emphasis on their names is not in their meaning, but in their construction. Both women have the initials M. C., a significant coincidence, especially since they are both twenty-six. As Wolfe notes, "Being the same age and having the same initials makes them, if not alter egos, then possible directions for one another." Mattie is devoting her life to becoming a housewife and mother while Molly is just the opposite—she prefers to pursue a life of independence.

Wilson's emphasis on names goes beyond literal translations of the names of specific characters. The idea of naming in general also serves to underscore the cultural search that many African Americans were undergoing at this time, when characters like Herald were searching for a true identity, a name to call their own. Wilson further emphasizes this idea through the character of Rutherford Selig, the People Finder. Selig, a white man, is able to help people like Herald find living relatives. Selig writes down the names of every customer, and refers to this list of names whenever he is trying to help somebody "find" a lost loved one. Also, as Bertha notes, Selig adds to his lists by including the names of blacks who travel with him: "They wait till he get ready to go, then they hitch a ride on his wagon. Then he charge folks a dollar to tell them where he took them." While this list of names works when Selig is searching for a specific person, it fails him when he tries to search for Bynum's "shiny man." Bynum first saw the shiny man during the vision in which he acquired his binding talent. The shiny man represents any independent black man who has embraced his cultural heritage and forged a new, self-sufficient identity. As Bynum relates to the others, during his vision, Bynum's father had told him that if he saw another shiny man before his death: "I would know that my song had been accepted and worked its full power in the world and I could lay down and die a happy man." Ever since, Bynum—like other African Americans—has been searching for the shiny man.

Since the shiny man has no specific identity that is recognizable to white men like Selig, the people finder is unable to find him. Says Selig to Bynum: "Well, I done told you I can't find nobody without a name." In addition, Selig does not have a list to help Herald find his African ancestors, many of whom died nameless on slave ships that were brought to America. To connect with his African heritage, Herald must rely on Bynum, an African conjurer. Likewise, Bynum must rely on Herald, not Selig, to find his shiny man for him. By tapping into their shared African heritage, Bynum helps guide Herald through his transformation into the shiny man, at which point, Bynum's search is over. By extension, Wilson informs his African-American audience that if they follow the path of Herald and Bynum and work together to embrace their African past, their search for a concrete identity could be over, too.

Source: Ryan D. Poquette, Critical Essay on Joe Turner's Come and Gone, in Drama for Students, The Gale Group, 2003.

This section contains 1,977 words
(approx. 5 pages at 400 words per page)
Joe Turner's Come and Gone from Gale. ©2005-2006 Thomson Gale, a part of the Thomson Corporation. All rights reserved.
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