August Wilson Writing Styles in Joe Turner's Come and Gone

This Study Guide consists of approximately 68 pages of chapter summaries, quotes, character analysis, themes, and more - everything you need to sharpen your knowledge of Joe Turner's Come and Gone.
This section contains 963 words
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African American Drama

Wilson is considered to be one of the premier African-American dramatists, and Joe Turner's Come and Gone is a prime example of African American drama—plays that generally depict the struggle African Americans have faced in the United States. Wilson's play is the third in his series of historical plays, each of which is meant to represent a decade from the twentieth century from an African-American point of view. In this case, the play depicts the 1910s, a time when many African Americans were migrating to the northern states to find work, as Seth notes in the beginning: "Word get out they need men to work in the mill and put in these roads . . . and niggers drop everything and head North looking for freedom." African-American dramas often have mostly black characters, just as in this play, where Selig is the only white character who appears on stage. African American dramas also often rely on urban settings, and often feature the urban poor, as this play does. With the exception of Selig, everybody who comes to Seth's boardinghouse struggles to survive. Even Seth, a landowner who has a boardinghouse and two side jobs, cannot make enough money to go into business for himself and get ahead in life. Says Seth: "I can't get nowhere working for Mr. Olowski and selling Selig five or six pots on the side."


The play takes place in a boardinghouse, a confined location that provides a common meeting place for several distinct characters. By limiting the action to the boardinghouse and its yard, Wilson does not need to spend any extra time establishing several different locations. As a result, Wilson is able to examine the various characters in greater depth in a shorter period of time than plays with several locations. The actual location of the boardinghouse is important, too. Pittsburgh was one of the key Northern cities that many African Americans migrated to from the South, and so was a symbol of the freedom that blacks expected to find in the North. As Wilson notes in his preface, entitled "The Play," these "sons and daughters of newly freed African slaves" come to the city "carrying Bibles and guitars, their pockets lined with dust and fresh hope." However, as Seth notes, the idea of northern prosperity was not realized by many blacks, because whites often competed for these jobs, and whites were generally favored over blacks. Says Seth: "White fellows coming from all over the world. White fellow come over and in six months got more than what I got."


A metaphor is an implied meaning or significance of a word or object that is different than the original meaning. In the play, Wilson uses many metaphors, the chief one being the search for one's song, or identity. Says Bynum to Herald: "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." Bynum does not mean that Herald has literally forgotten how to sing a song that he used to know. Instead, the song is a metaphor for Herald's identity, and the African-American cultural identity in general. Since this identity is derived from Herald's African past, in which music plays a large part, the metaphor becomes very fitting—and resonates with audience members if they are aware of this well-documented connection. The search to regain this song, by Herald and others, introduces several other metaphors into the play. For example, the boardinghouse, which is technically just a building, becomes a place of healing for many of the tenants, who are searching to fix their lives. Characters like Bertha and Bynum help to underscore this idea, since they both help to guide these wandering, searching souls in various ways. When Jeremy leaves Mattie, Bertha helps Mattie, by telling her not to worry about love, which will find its way to her in time. Says Bertha: "Trying to figure it out don't do nothing but give you a troubled mind. Don't no man want a woman with a troubled mind."

Most of the metaphors in the play link in some way to the idea of identity. Other metaphors include the idea of the shiny man, a man that signifies African-American independence. Bynum meets a strange man on the road when he is younger, and this man has Bynum hold out his hands. He has Bynum rub their hands together, and when Bynum looks at their combined hands, he sees that "they got blood on them." The man tells Bynum to "take and rub it all over me . . . say that was a way of cleaning myself." This act causes Bynum to have a vision, in which life is magnified and the strange man starts "shining like new money." Although this collection of ideas might be confusing to an audience member when it appears in the first scene, the significance makes more sense at the end of the play. When Herald hears from his wife, Martha, that he should "be washed with the blood of the lamb," he tells her, "I can bleed for myself." After slashing himself across the chest with his knife, Herald wipes his blood on his face, just as Bynum did with the shiny man. This act frees Herald from his past, and as Bynum notes, causes Herald to shine "like new money!" The man that Bynum met on the road was an independent black man, someone who had found his song and was self-sufficient, with no chains to the past. To Bynum, therefore, this man shone, just as Herald is now shining, "Having found his song, the song of self-sufficiency," as Wilson notes in the stage directions.

This section contains 963 words
(approx. 3 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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