Joe Turner's Come and Gone | Study Guide

August Wilson

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Joe Turner's Come and Gone | Plot Summary

See Plot Diagram


The play takes place in a Pittsburgh boardinghouse owned by Seth Holly and run by his wife, Bertha Holly. It is 1911.

All but one of the characters are African American. The only white character is the peddler Rutherford Selig. The boardinghouse owners, Seth and Bertha, are northerners, but the other characters are originally from the South.

Act 1

As the play begins, Bertha is cooking the Saturday breakfast. Seth is commenting on the odd behavior of his tenant, Bynum Walker, who is in the vegetable garden sacrificing a pigeon. Seth bemoans how difficult it is to get a loan to start his own business. When Bynum comes in, he and Seth talk about another tenant, Jeremy Furlow, who has been arrested. Seth complains about "foolish-acting niggers" who come to Pittsburgh from the South looking for freedom and a good life.

Rutherford Selig, a white peddler, arrives for his weekly visit. He sells Seth some sheet metal to make dustpans for him. Selig is known as "the People Finder"; it's said he can find anyone. Bynum has paid him to find a "shiny man" Bynum once met. He tells how the shiny man took him someplace where his father told him to find his song. He found out his song was binding people, which is why he's called Bynum. He explains there is more than one shiny man. Selig pays Seth for the pots he ordered the week before and leaves.

After this, the kitchen begins filling up. First, Jeremy comes home. He is an exuberant young man who arrived only two weeks ago and found work on a road-building crew. He says he was arrested for drunkenness last night before he had even taken a sip of alcohol and has just been released. Seth is skeptical. Bynum suggests Jeremy enter a guitar contest at Seefus for some extra money. Based on past experience, Jeremy is hesitant but agrees to give it a try.

Next to arrive are Herald Loomis and his 11-year-old daughter, Zonia. Loomis has come to Pittsburgh looking for his wife, Martha, and wants to have Selig find her. Since Selig won't be back until next Saturday, Loomis takes a room for the week. After showing the Loomises to their room, Seth confides to Bertha he knows just where Martha is. But she calls herself Martha Pentecost, not Loomis. He doesn't want to tell Loomis because he doesn't like the looks of him.

There's another knock at the door. It's Mattie Campbell, who wants Bynum to cast a spell to bring back her man. Bynum says he could do it, but after hearing how her man left, he says there would be no point. The man would just leave again. He gives Mattie a cloth packet to put under her pillow, saying it will bring her good luck. Jeremy says he'll be Mattie's man and asks her to go with him to Seefus to watch him play guitar.

While playing in the garden, Zonia meets Reuben Mercer, a preteen boy who lives next door. Reuben tells Zonia about his pigeons. The pigeons used to belong to his friend Eugene, who raised them to sell to Bynum. After Eugene died, Reuben was supposed to release them, but instead he sells them to Bynum, too.

A week later, Seth tells Bertha that Loomis has been standing outside the church, looking for his wife. Bertha says he should tell Loomis where Martha is or tell Martha that Loomis is looking for her. But Seth is suspicious of Loomis, so he won't do that. When Selig comes to collect the dustpans he ordered from Seth, Loomis pays Selig a dollar to find Martha.

The next day Jeremy announces he went out with Mattie Campbell the night before and won a dollar playing guitar. He arranges for Mattie to move in with him. Bynum tells Jeremy he can't just take up with any woman. A woman is "a whole world"; he can't ignore that. They are interrupted by the entrance of Molly Cunningham, a very attractive and self-assured young woman who has missed her train. She needs somewhere to stay for a few days, and Seth shows her to a room. Jeremy says after meeting Molly he understands what Bynum meant about women.

After Sunday dinner, the boardinghouse residents Juba—a type of dance reminiscent of slave dances. Herald Loomis enters, screaming at them to stop. He begins speaking in tongues, and then has a vision. In it he sees bones coming out of the water and turning into people. The people stand up and walk away, but he can't stand. Loomis collapses.

Act 2

The next morning, Seth tells Loomis he needs to leave because of his behavior the night before. Loomis points out he paid through Saturday. Seth agrees: he can stay until Saturday. Throughout the act, every day Seth reminds Loomis what day it is.

Bynum talks with Molly about his father, whose song healed people. They are interrupted by Jeremy's arrival. Jeremy has just lost his job. The foreman, who was white, told all the black workers they had to pay 50 cents if they wanted to keep their jobs. Jeremy refused and was fired. Jeremy asks Molly to go on the road with him. He can support them playing guitar. Molly agrees to go as long as Jeremy agrees to her conditions.

Monday evening Bynum is singing a song with the lyrics "They tell me Joe Turner's come and gone." Herald Loomis doesn't like it. Bynum says he can tell Loomis has worked for Joe Turner because Loomis has forgotten how to sing his own song. At first Loomis gets angry and denies this, but soon he admits it. In 1901 Joe Turner grabbed a group of men Loomis was talking to. He took 40 men and kept them working on a chain gang until 1908. When Loomis was released, he found his daughter staying with his mother-in-law but has been looking for his wife ever since. He believes if he sees Martha's face, he will come back to his own world. Bynum says Joe Turner wanted to steal Loomis's song, but Loomis still has it. He's just forgotten how to sing it.

Tuesday morning Jeremy has left with Molly. Bertha tells Mattie not to worry about him. Loomis enters, and Mattie engages him in conversation. It is clear they are attracted to one another, and Loomis asks Mattie if he can touch her. When he tries, though, he finds he can't, saying he's forgotten how to touch a woman.

Early the next morning, Reuben tells Zonia he had a vision of Seth's dead mother, Miss Mabel. Miss Mabel told him to let the pigeons go as Eugene wanted. Frightened, Reuben released them. Now he asks Zonia if her mother could be dead. She says no; her father can smell her mother. Reuben asks Zonia if he can kiss her. He does, then lays his head on her chest. He says he can hear her heart singing. He says she's his girl, and when he's grown, he'll look for her.

Saturday morning, Loomis leaves with Zonia to continue his search for Martha. Soon, Selig arrives with Martha, who is anxious to see her daughter. Loomis returns, and Martha tells him after Joe Turner took him, she had to move on with her life. When her church moved north, she came too. Now she wants her daughter back. Loomis says he needed to say goodbye to her before he could begin his own life. He tells Zonia to stay with her mother. Loomis accuses Bynum of binding him to Martha. Angry that everyone wants to bind him up, Loomis pulls a knife. Worried by his behavior, Martha tells Loomis he needs to be washed clean in the blood of Jesus. Angrily Loomis asks if blood makes you clean. He slashes his chest with a knife and rubs the blood on his face. Suddenly he realizes he can stand. Having found his song, Loomis is free. He says goodbye to Martha and leaves. Mattie follows. Bynum realizes Loomis has become a shiny man.

Joe Turner's Come and Gone Plot Diagram

Climax123456789Rising ActionFalling ActionResolutionIntroduction


1 Herald and Zonia Loomis come to stay at the boardinghouse.

Rising Action

2 Jeremy moves in with Mattie but flirts with Molly.

3 Loomis asks Selig to look for his wife, Martha.

4 After the residents Juba, Loomis has a vision and collapses.

5 Seth tells Loomis he must leave next Saturday.

6 Loomis wants to touch Mattie but can't.


7 Selig brings Martha, who is reunited with Zonia.

Falling Action

8 Loomis stands on his own and leaves to start his new life.


9 Bynum realizes Loomis has become a shiny man.

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