Haunted by Joe Turner
Posted by: Neil Hollands
I’ve written previously about August Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle, but having just finished Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, I had to promote that work specifically. Wilson’s cycle has a play for each decade of the 20th century, and this is the entry for the 1910s. The action takes place in a boarding house, and concerns the arrival of a new resident, the mysterious Herald Loomis, and his daughter. We come to find that Loomis has been held captive on a chain gang for eight years. After his release, he picked up his daughter from her grandparents and has been traveling for several years looking for her mother. What’s unclear is what he intends to do if he finds her.
This play is about the aftermath of slavery, and in some ways, each of the other characters represent different ways of trying to cope with that past. Some are rootless, others search to heal broken relationships, some are accommodating while others are angry, some are all business, while others have turned to magic and spiritualism. None of these strategies is entirely successful, and they are in conflict with each other, creating tension and misunderstandings between the characters.
Wilson’s plot is low-key and rather oblique, but despite this, he builds suspense effortlessly. The boarding house is brimming with possibilities, and many of them are frightening. The grotesque past rears its ugly head almost casually, as when we find out that the people-finding skills of the only white character in the play, a peddler named Rutherford Selig, were passed down to him from a father who worked to capture runaway slaves.
The action builds toward the reunion of Loomis and his wife Martha, but I won’t give away what happens then. Your group will have to read Joe Turner’s Come and Gone and find out for yourselves.