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"Know thyself" Socrates is alleged to have said. August Wilson's _Joe Turner's Come and Gone_ makes a similar supplication. Set in 1911 Pittsburgh, Bertha and Seth Holly operate a boarding house, wanting to maintain a sense of "respectability" and not draw attention to themselves - symbolic of middle-class African-Americans, I think: enjoying their place in society, but wanting to remain below the radar of white America, lest what they have earned and have be taken from them. Bynum Walker is a neighbor of the Holly's boarding house, and is a "rootworker" - a modern day shaman, a connection to the African past ripped away from African-Americans. Between the two poles of Bynum and Seth enters Herald Loomis, a vagrant in seach of his wife who left him while he was in prison, put there by "Joe Turner."
"Joe Turner" is the Man: the system of institutional racism, of social, political and economic injustice, of American society promising opportunity with one hand while taking away any gains the underclass makes. It is Joe Turner who has imprisoned Herald Loomis, it is Joe Turner that frightens Seth Holly, it is Joe Turner that intimidates African-Americans from knowing - and celebrating - who they are, where they are from, and from realizing what they can become. It is no accident, then, that Loomis walks away from Joe Turner only with the help of Bynum: Wilson's message that only by facing the past and knowing what it has done to African-Americans can they truly know themselves and thereby become self-actualized.
I am a huge fan of Wilson's work - his century cycle is a brilliant and moving narrative of the African-American experience in the 20th century. It seems with each play of his I find a new favorite; _Joe Turner's Come and Gone_ was Wilson's favorite, and I find it difficult to disagree with him here. Highly recommended
Joe Turner is the weakest of the three Wilson plays I have read. A lot of it is overcooked and there are allusions to history that I did not know, and when I looked them up I can say that Wilson missed a fantastic chance at illuminating an important time in African American history (as he does in Ma Rainey and Fences). I thought the lay out was too contrived: various characters with different backgrounds and from around the country meet up in a Pittsburgh boarding house -all seems too convenient for good writing. Bynum, the conjurer, is given the roll of handing down ages of traditional wisdom, and it is he who leads Loomis (a victim of Joe Turner's oppression) in a personal revival to rediscover his identity. What is missing throughout the play is the background of the title, and this is too bad because there lies the authentic, human element that Wilson is trying to capture. Only after looking online did I discover that Joe Turner was based on a real brother of a governor, who would set up the newly freed slaves on minor crimes (such as gambling) and while transporting them between prisons, he would drop them off in territory unfamiliar to the "convicts" where they would essentially be indentured servants for seven years. Without knowing this underhanded slave system, it is hard for a reader (or audience) to really grasp how oppression was happening, and it is the how part that creates complexity. Newly "freed" people facing new means of maintaining something as close to slavery as possible, which changes the face of the social experiences that Wilson is trying to convey in his drama. It reads all too much of a man in the 1980s trying to find his own identity through historical characters, who no doubt faced oppression and identity issues themselves, but not identically to a man in the late 20th century. I would reccomend many other stories (by Wilson and other authors) about people facing oppression in the US before this one.
Book arrived in excellent condition, as listed. And it arrived a week early! Book was securely packaged and came with a hand-written note! From an independent seller, no less. How personable. And duly appreciated. P.S. The quality of book/play speaks for itself. August Wilson's plays are a brilliant display of literary genius, and an illumination of (African) American life.