Book Note: Joe Turner’s Come and Gone by August Wilson

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It might be surprising to you that I enjoy reading plays, given how few (none) I’ve actually written about. Honestly, if someone reviewed my credentials to support the claim, they’d come up with some lame examples – not the plays, just the quantity. I don’t go out of my way to find playwrights to read, I just scoop them up when I stumble on them. Still, I’ve never read one that I’ve not enjoyed.

So while I’m not the best person to be writing critical analysis for a play, I can point you to some of the elements of this reading that stood out to me and why I will be looking for more plays by August Wilson. In Joe Turner’s Come and Gone by August Wilson, the protagonist, a relatively quiet and obscure character throughout, is Herald Loomis. He arrives at a black Pittsburgh boardinghouse in 1911 after seven years’ labor in Joe Turner’s chain gang. On the outside, he is free. On the inside, he is oppressed. Nevertheless, he pursues the one meeting that he believes will restore his sense of place in the world: his wife with whom he had their daughter, Zonia, just before being captured in the chain gang.

The people that create the atmosphere, tension, and gravitas of the play divert attention from the main thrust of the play and the resulting conclusion that suggests a satisfying resolution of a sort for all the characters. The central themes of being bound and being found are evident in most transactions between the characters and their surroundings: debt, relationships, work, racial relations, death, and purpose.

The beauty of the reading is in appreciating how much of a story is told through the people.

I read the descriptions for the scenes and the notes to the actors about how a character was feeling and what was influencing his behavior at the time, but the weight of the drama gathers through the conversations. Thoughts on staying or going, loving or leaving, working or playing rise to the surface in the kitchen, in the garden, and in the street. The locations are not described in waves of adjectives or even succinct, pity sentences. They are seen through the words of the inhabitants and only as needed. In the truest sense of the interpretation, plays are excellent examples of “show don’t tell.”

2 thoughts on “Book Note: Joe Turner’s Come and Gone by August Wilson

    1. That’s probably the nicest compliment I could get about my reading. I’ll confess that plays are fun to read also due to their relative brevity….nice to get a quick sense of accomplishment 🙂

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