Joe Turner’s Come And Gone (The Century Cycle #2) by August Wilson
While I am unaware of any connections between this particular play and the rest of the series (this is the sixth of ten plays in the Century Cycle that I have read so far), the play does have a lot to offer in its portrayal of life in a black boarding house in 1910’s Pittsburgh where the scars of slavery are still raw and fresh. A group of people, each of them with their own story and their own distinct place in society and relative to slavery, come together to eat common meals and to engage in communication and the building of friendship, within a boardinghouse with the somewhat high cost of $2 of rent (with board included) per week. The conversation is sparkling and the play really makes this particular time and place come alive, as people who could be entirely strangers to each other end up being able to develop a sense of intimacy and perhaps a fragile sense of community through the acknowledgement of past wounds and past struggles and the promise of working together in order to create a better future. Whether they are able to see it or not, this play ends up with a strong sense of hope and encouragement in the face of losses.
As is customary in this particular series, the play is a two act play, and the first act more or less sets up the characters and allows them to reveal themselves through their conversation with others. And it is a strange group of people that we have, including a mysterious man who came up from the south with obvious baggage, someone who has some sort of voodoo ability to bind people together that he avoids for corrupt or wicked purposes, strange as it may seem. There is, of course, an impossibly attractive mystery girl whose presence after having missed a train to Cincinnati leads her to be highly sought after by the other men there. The second act, in contrast, shows these characters working out their struggles and coming to terms with their losses, just like the mysterious man ends up finding out a girl is the daughter of someone else, and admits his own period of seven years of servitude for one Joe Turner for having preached to some gamblers. The play manages to demonstrate the loss as well as the potential for rebirth and renewal among free blacks in the north.
Admittedly, the play is a bit of a strange one, and it probably only works as well as it does (which is very well) because it has characters that are sufficiently mysterious and unfamiliar with everyone else to allow the process of getting to know to reveal some really deep and thoughtful connections between their own experience and the history of the black experience of the 19th century. This particular play sets the context of the life of a set of decent people, where the management of the boardinghouse gets upset even at drinking, much less fornicating or more serious drug use, in the experiences that these people had in moving up from a more dangerous and vulnerable life in the South. Some of the characters even comment upon the Underground Railroad and in the understanding that even with slavery gone the place of the black is still an uncertain one that has a lot of danger for some of the characters here, many of whom have lost family members due to the injustices of life and all of whom are seeking a better life than they have previously known.