The Summary below is provided by LitCharts (a similar site to Sparknotes):
In the opening scene of Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, Seth talks to his wife, Bertha, in the kitchen of their boarding house. Looking out the window at Bynum, one of the house’s boarders, Seth narrates the old man’s strange actions, voicing his disapproval of the spiritual ritual Bynum is undertaking in the garden. Bynum is a “conjure man,” or a man who practices folk magic. A pragmatic craftsman who spends his time making pots and pans, Seth is suspicious of Bynum’s superstitious ways, but Bertha tells him to leave the old man alone. As their conversation continues, Bynum comes inside and sits down for breakfast. Together, Seth, Bertha, and Bynum talk about a young man named Jeremy, who also lives in the boarding house. Apparently, Jeremy spent the previous night in jail, a fact that unnerves Seth, who wants to keep a respectable household. When Bynum stands up for Jeremy, saying he just has “a lot of country in him” that will fade away, Seth says, “Ever since slavery got over with there ain’t been nothing but foolish-acting niggers. 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. They don’t know the white fellows looking too.”
Eventually, a white man named Selig enters the kitchen and sells Seth aluminum. The two men agree that Seth will make dustpans out of the aluminum, which Selig will retrieve the following week and then sell door-to-door. Selig is known as a “people finder” because he can track people down for a small fee while going town to town selling his wares.
Bynum asks about a man he paid Selig to find, a “shiny man” he once encountered while walking on a long unfamiliar road. Bynum explains that this “shiny man” told him to follow along because he wanted to show him something, claiming that if Bynum came with him, he’d show him the secret of life. Eventually, the two men turned a corner in the road, and suddenly the strange man rubbed blood all over himself and instructed Bynum to do the same. Then this man was shining all over until, abruptly, he vanished. At this point, Bynum came upon the spirit of his dead father, who told him he was going to show him “how to find [his] song.” His father then taught him this “song” and told him that if he ever sees a shiny man again, he’ll know his song has been accepted, at which point he can lie down “and die a happy man.” Finishing his story, Bynum explains that his “song” is the “Binding Song,” meaning he can join people together.
Jeremy comes home from the jailhouse and sits down to eat a large breakfast under Seth’s scornful gaze, and Selig departs. Jeremy explains that the only reason he got arrested the night before is because the police officers found out he’d just been paid two dollars for working on the town’s new bridge, and they wanted to confiscate this money for themselves. Meanwhile, a strange man and his daughter arrive in the doorway. The man’s name is Herald Loomis, a shady looking character. Loomis asks if he and his eleven-year-old daughter, Zonia, can rent a room in Seth’s house, and Seth haggles with them until they reach an agreement. Loomis then asks if anybody in the room knows a Martha Loomis, his wife, whom he’s trying to find. Nobody can answer this question, but Bynum suggests Loomis pay Selig to find Martha.
Seth brings Loomis and Zonia upstairs to get settled, and when he returns to the kitchen, he says he doesn’t like the looks of Loomis. “Something ain’t right with that fellow,” he says. He explains that he realized while talking to Loomis upstairs that the woman he’s looking for is somebody he himself knows as Martha Pentecost, who lives near a church just outside town. However, he says that he didn’t tell Loomis about Martha Pentecost because he doesn’t trust him; “The way that fellow look I wasn’t gonna tell him nothing. I don’t know what he looking for her for.” At this point, a young woman named Mattie Campbell appears looking for Bynum, who she asks to work his magic to bind her to her lover, Jack Carper, who has recently left her. Bynum tells her that if Jack has left, it’s probably better not to bring him back. Instead, he gives her a small cloth that supposedly brings luck. Jeremy then starts talking to Mattie, telling her she ought to spend some time with him while she waits for Jack. The two decide to go to a guitar contest that night, where Jeremy plans to win money with his beautiful playing. During this time, Zonia goes outside and meets a young boy, Reuben, who lives next door. When Reuben asks where her mother is, Zonia says that she and her father have been wandering and trying to find her. Reuben asks why she left in the first place, and Zonia says, “I don’t know. My daddy say some man named Joe Turner did something bad to him once and that made her run away.”
The following week, Seth and Bertha are in the kitchen, where Seth again insists that there’s something suspicious about Loomis. Bertha tries to dissuade him of this notion, and when Bynum enters, he too tries to convince Seth otherwise, saying, “He just a man got something on his mind.” Not long thereafter, Selig arrives and pays for the dustpans Seth has made. Loomis then comes into the kitchen and pays Selig to find his wife, and the two strike an agreement that Selig will try to find her before he returns to the boarding house the following Saturday.
The next day, as Seth and Bertha get ready for church, Jeremy reveals that he won the guitar contest the previous night, and that he and Mattie had a great time together. As such, she’s going to move into his room, so he pays Seth the extra cost of feeding her. After Bynum and Jeremy talk about the difference between lust and love—a distinction Jeremy seems to have trouble understanding—a young woman named Molly Cunningham knocks on the door and asks Seth if she can rent a room. A remarkably attractive woman, she tells Seth she likes to have “company” from time to time, which he says is acceptable as long as she isn’t disrespecting the house by working as a prostitute. When Molly leaves to go to the outhouse, Jeremy jumps up from his chair and watches her through the window.
Later that evening, as the boarders are eating dinner and chatting, Seth suggests that Jeremy get his guitar, and they all start doing the “Juba,” a collective song performed in a call-and-response style “reminiscent of the Ring Shouts of the African slaves.” They jump around and drum the table, chanting about the Holy Ghost until Loomis storms in and screams at them, telling them to stop. “You all sitting up here singing about the Holy Ghost. What’s so holy about the Holy Ghost?” Working himself up, he laments, “Why God got to be so big? Why he got to be bigger than me? How much big is there? How much big do you want?” Saying this, he starts unzipping his pants, and Seth yells at him to stop. Loomis then begins speaking in tongues and dancing around the room, saying, “You all don’t know nothing about me. You don’t know what I done seen. Herald Loomis done seen some things he ain’t got words to tell you.” Just as he’s about to exit, he collapses, petrified by a vision. Bynum crouches over him, asking what he’s seen, and Loomis fitfully explains that he’s seen “bones rise up out the water. Rise up and walk across the water.” Bynum helps him along, repeating his words and asking him questions. Loomis says that he suddenly found himself in a place with “water that was bigger than the whole world.” As he watched the bones walking on the water, they suddenly sank, and then an enormous wave carried them to the shore, breaking over the banks, at which point the bones inexplicably had “flesh on them,” and black people washed up on the sand and simply lay there, along with Loomis himself. Loomis then says that he couldn’t stand up, although the other people (the ones who just washed up on the shore) were standing and saying goodbye to one another and “walking down the road.” “I got to get up!” Loomis screams, and as he tries to stand (in real life), he collapses right as the lights go out.
The following morning, Seth tells Loomis he can’t stay in the boarding house anymore because of his antics the previous night, but Loomis reminds him that he’s already paid for the full week, so Seth agrees to let him remain until Saturday. After this conversation, Jeremy comes home and says he’s been fired from his job working on the bridge. Apparently, the white bosses went around to the black employees and demanded they pay fifty cents to keep their jobs. Jeremy refused, and so he was fired. Seth thinks Jeremy’s decision is absurd, but Jeremy shrugs it off, saying, “Don’t make me no difference. There’s a big road out there.” Eventually, everybody but Jeremy and Molly file out of the kitchen, and although Jeremy has already started living with Mattie, he makes plans to run off with Molly.
While Seth and Bynum play dominos, Bynum sings a song about Joe Turner that brings Loomis into the room. Hearing the song, Loomis demands that Bynum stop singing, and it eventually comes to light that Loomis himself was captured by Joe Turner, the brother of the Governor of Tennessee. Apparently, Joe Turner hunts down black men and essentially enslaves them for seven years at a time. One day, Loomis explains, he was walking down the road and saw a group of men gambling. Because he was a preacher at the time, he stopped to try to convert these sinners, at which point Joe Turner descended with his men and captured Loomis, separating him from Martha and Zonia for seven years. When he was finally released, he went looking for Martha, but only found Zonia living with her grandmother. Since then, he has been traveling everywhere to find Martha. “I just wanna see her face so I can get me a starting place in the world,” he says.
When Saturday finally rolls around, Seth kicks Loomis out before Selig arrives. As such, Loomis stands at the end of the road, waiting to see if Selig has found his wife. Sure enough, Selig enters the kitchen along with Martha. Seeing this, Loomis comes back and greets his wife, who desperately explains that the reason she left Zonia behind was because she was traveling north in order to find financially viable living options, since after Loomis was captured she couldn’t sustain the family. Because the journey north was dangerous, she left Zonia with the girl’s grandmother. “Now that I see your face I can say my goodbye and make my own world,” Loomis says. He then instructs Zonia to go with her mother so that she can grow up having learned from both male and female role models. At this point, Bynum reveals that he bound Zonia to Martha, but didn’t bind Loomis to Martha because “you can’t bind what don’t cling.” This sets Loomis off, and he says, “Everywhere I go people wanna bind me up.” Martha, in response, insists that Loomis needs to find his way back to religion, and urges her estranged husband to return to the church. She tells him that Jesus bled for him, but he contends that he can “bleed for [him]self.” She tells Herald he needs “be something,” and to find meaning in life, but Loomis is not persuaded. Instead, he cuts himself across the chest and rubs the blood on his face, saying, “I’m standing! I’m standing. My legs stood up! I’m standing now!” As he walks outside, Bynum calls after him, saying, “Herald Loomis, you shining! You shining like new money!”
AUGUST WILSON: THE MAN BEHIND THE LEGACY by Center Theatre Group
August Wilson was born Frederick August Kittel on April 27, 1945, to mother Daisy Wilson, a cleaning lady who primarily cared for August and his siblings, and his father, also Frederick August Kittel, a German immigrant and baker. August Wilson was the fourth of six children and the oldest son.
Growing up in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the setting for many of his plays, Wilson attended St. Richard’s Parochial School and then progressed to Central Catholic High School in 1959. In the era of Jim Crow laws and stark prejudice against African-Americans, Wilson faced hostility and harassment that forced him to transfer to two other high schools during his freshman year. In 1960, at age 15, Wilson dropped out of Gladstone High School after a teacher accused him of plagiarizing a paper on Napoleon. Undaunted by his troubled high school experience, Wilson continued his education informally at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh and on the streets of the Hill District, soaking in the language of its people and the culture of his community.
In 1962, Wilson enlisted in the U.S. Army for three years, but left after one year of service. He then worked odd jobs as a dishwasher, porter, cook, and gardener to support himself. In 1965, Wilson purchased his first typewriter for $20, using money paid to him by his sister Freda for writing a term paper for her. At this time, Wilson began to write poetry.
In the late 1960s, at the threshold of the Black Arts Movement, Wilson joined a group of poets, educators, and artists who formed the Centre Avenue Poets Theater Workshop. Wilson met friend and collaborator, Rob Penny, through this group, and in 1968, they co-founded the Black Horizon Theater, a community-based, Black Nationalist Theater Company in the Hill District of Pittsburgh.
Wilson served as the self-taught resident director, and Penny was the playwright-in-residence up until the mid-1970s when the company dissolved. Penny and Wilson produced several plays from and inspired by the black canon, a collection of literature and artwork by African-American artists, assembled and celebrated to raise awareness about the African-American experience. In 1970, Wilson married his first wife, Brenda Burton, and had his first daughter, Sakina Ansari Wilson.
In 1978, Wilson moved to St. Paul, Minnesota, where he concentrated more on playwriting and became a company member of the Penumbra Theatre led by colleague Lou Bellamy. In 1979, Wilson wrote Jitney, which he considered his first real play. Wilson received a fellowship from the Minneapolis Playwrights Center in 1980, and the following year, he married his second wife Judy Oliver.
Wilson’s third American Century Cycle play, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, which premiered at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in 1982, was the first to gain him widespread recognition. In the same year, Wilson met Lloyd Richards, the African-American artistic director of the Yale Repertory Theatre who would direct Wilson’s first six plays on Broadway. In 1987, Wilson won the Pulitzer Prize for Fences, and in 1990, The Piano Lesson earned Wilson his second Pulitzer.
In 1990, he transitioned to Seattle, Washington, where he met Costume Designer Costanza Romero in 1994. They married and together had a daughter, Azula Carmen Wilson, in 1997. Wilson continued to work and earn numerous accolades throughout his lifetime. In June 2005, at the age of 60, Wilson was diagnosed with liver cancer. He died on Sunday, October 2, 2005, in Seattle’s Swedish Medical Center.
Shortly after his death, on October 16, 2005, the former Virginia Theater on Broadway was renamed August Wilson Theatre, and on February 17, 2006, the African American Cultural Center of Greater Pittsburgh officially became the August Wilson Center for African American Culture. In addition to these buildings, the August Wilson Monologue Competition, now in its seventh year, further preserves Wilson’s legacy.
A Biography of August Wilson: The Playwright Behind 'Fences'
By Nadra Kareem Nittle
Award-winning playwright August Wilson had no shortage of fans during his life, but his writing enjoyed renewed interest after a film adaptation of his play “Fences” opened in theaters on Christmas Day 2016. The critically acclaimed film not only earned kudos for stars Viola Davis and Denzel Washington, who also directed but exposed new audiences to Wilson’s work as well. In each of his plays, Wilson shined a spotlight on the lives of the working-class African Americans overlooked in society. With this biography, learn how Wilson’s upbringing influenced his major works.
August Wilson was born April 27, 1945, in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, a poor black neighborhood. At birth, he bore his baker father’s name, Frederick August Kittel. His father was a German immigrant, known for his drinking and temper, and his mother, Daisy Wilson, was African American. She taught her son to stand up to injustice. His parents divorced, however, and the playwright would later change his surname to his mother’s, for she was his primary caregiver. His father did not have a consistent role in his life and died in 1965.
Wilson experienced fierce racism attending a succession of nearly all-white schools, and the alienation he felt as a result eventually led him to drop out of high school at 15. Leaving school did not mean Wilson had given up on his education. He decided to educate himself by regularly visiting his local library and voraciously reading the offerings there. A self-taught education proved fruitful for Wilson, who would earn a high school diploma due to his efforts. Alternatively, he learned important life lessons by listening to the stories of the African Americans, mostly retirees and blue-collar workers, in the Hill District.
A Writer Gets His Start
By 20, Wilson decided that he would be a poet, but three years later he developed an interest in theater. In 1968, he and his friend Rob Penny started the Black Horizons on the Hill Theater. Lacking a place to perform, the theater company staged its productions at elementary schools and sold tickets for just 50 cents by herding in passersby outside just before the shows started.
Wilson’s interest in theater waned, and it wasn’t until he moved to St. Paul, Minn., in 1978 and began adapting Native American folktales into children's plays that he renewed his interest in the craft. In his new city, he began to recall his old life in the Hill District by chronicling the experiences of the residents there is a play, which developed into “Jitney.” But Wilson’s first play staged professionally was “Black Bart and the Sacred Hills,” which he wrote by piecing together several of his old poems.
Lloyd Richards, the first black Broadway director and dean of the Yale School of Drama, helped Wilson refine his plays and directed six of them. Richards was artistic director of Yale Repertory Theater and head of the Eugene O'Neill Playwrights Conference in Connecticut to which Wilson would submit the work that made him a star, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” Richards gave Wilson guidance on the play and it opened at the Yale Repertory Theatre in 1984. The New York Times described the play as “a searing inside account of what white racism does to its victims.” Set in 1927, the play details the rocky relationship between a blues singer and a trumpet player.
In 1984, “Fences” premiered. It takes place in the 1950s and chronicles the tensions between a former Negro leagues baseball player working as a garbage man and the son who also dreams of an athletic career. For that play, Wilson received the Tony Award and the Pulitzer Prize. The playwright followed up “Fences” with “Joe Turner's Come and Gone,” which takes place in a boardinghouse in 1911.
Among Wilson’s other key works is "The Piano Lesson," the story of siblings fighting over a family piano in 1936. He received his second Pulitzer for that 1990 play. Wilson also wrote "Two Trains Running," "Seven Guitars," "King Hedley II," "Gem of the Ocean" and "Radio Golf," his last play. Most of his plays had Broadway debuts and many were commercial successes. "Fences," for example, boasted earnings of $11 million in one year, a record at that time for a nonmusical Broadway production.
A number of celebrities starred in his works. Whoopi Goldberg acted in a revival of "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" in 2003, while Charles S. Dutton starred in both the original and the revival. Other famous actors who’ve appeared in Wilson productions include S. Epatha Merkerson, Angela Bassett, Phylicia Rashad, Courtney B. Vance, Laurence Fishburne, and Viola Davis.
In total, Wilson received seven New York Drama Critics' Circle awards for his plays.
Art for Social Change
Each of Wilson’s works describes the struggles of the black underclass, be they sanitation workers, domestics, drivers or criminals. Through his dramas, which span different decades of the 20th century, the voiceless have a voice. The plays expose the personal turmoil the marginalized endure because their humanity all too often goes unrecognized by their employers, by strangers, by family members and America overall.
While his plays tell the stories of an impoverished black community, there’s a universal appeal to them as well. One can relate to Wilson’s characters in the same way one can relate to the protagonists of Arthur Miller’s works. But Wilson’s plays stand out for their emotional gravitas and lyricism. The playwright didn’t want to gloss over the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow and their impact on his character’s lives. He believed that art was political but didn’t consider his own plays to be explicitly political.
"I think my plays offer (white Americans) a different way to look at black Americans," he told The Paris Review in 1999. "For instance, in ‘Fences' they see a garbage man, a person they don't really look at, although they see a garbage man every day. By looking at Troy's life, white people find out that the content of this black garbage man's life is affected by the same things - love, honor, beauty, betrayal, duty. Recognizing that these things are as much part of his life as theirs can affect how they think about and deal with black people in their lives.”
Illness and Death
Wilson died of liver cancer on Oct. 2, 2005, at the age of 60 in a Seattle hospital. He had not announced that he was suffering from the disease until a month before his death. His third wife, costume designer Constanza Romero, three daughters (one with Romero and two with his first wife) and several siblings survived him.
After he succumbed to cancer, the playwright continued to receive honors. The Virginia Theater on Broadway announced that it would bear Wilson’s name. Its new marquee went up two weeks after his death.
August Wilson in a 60-minute Interview with Charlie Rose, 1996
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Tiffany Gilly (she/her) is doing what she can to be an advocate and ally to Black Artists and People of Color through her art. She is an actor who seeks to support theatre and stories by BIPOC Playwrights. She started this play-reading group in the summer of 2020 in response to the killing of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and the Black Lives Matter Movement to increase the knowledge of plays by non-White Playwrights as a starting point or a stepping stone for other artists.