Joe Turner's Come and Gone | Study Guide

August Wilson

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Joe Turner's Come and Gone | Themes



Identity is the central theme in Joe Turner's Come and Gone. This is true of most of the individual characters in the play, but it is also true on a larger scale. In the wake of emancipation, African Americans throughout the United States are struggling to find their identities as free citizens.

Most of the characters are searching for their identity in some way. Jeremy Furlow is a character who is very much in a hurry to establish his identity. He is making many decisions in rapid successions, moving to Pittsburgh, taking a job, and then quitting his job. He asks Mattie to be his girlfriend the first time he sees her and has her move in with him a week later. At various times in the play, characters tell him essentially to slow down. Bynum Walker does so in Act 1, Scene 3, when he tells him he shouldn't just choose Mattie as his woman simply because she's there and feels good to him. Petting an animal also feels good, but a woman is "a whole world" and can help him find his identity. In Act 2, Scene 1, Molly Cunningham tells Jeremy how to keep his job after being fired, showing that she is a sensible woman who might help him to establish himself.

The characters of Molly and Mattie are presented as opposites. Mattie is a woman who is looking to find her identity through her association with a man. In contrast, Molly is strong, independent, and sure of who she is. She is just passing through on the way to something better, while Mattie is waiting for someone to tell her where to go and what to do.

Bynum Walker says that his song—essentially his function in life—is to bind things and people together. That is also his function in the play. He is the glue that holds the story together. As such he is the one who speaks explicitly about the issue of identity. In Act 1, Scene 1, he talks about the shiny man who brought him to his father. His father said he needed to write his own song, meaning find his own identity. Bynum makes clear that each man needs to find his own meaning of life. Even though Selig asks him for the secret of life, Bynum says, "You still got to figure it out. Can't no one figure it out for you."

Herald Loomis is the foremost example of someone seeking his identity. Bynum says he knew Loomis had been with Joe Turner because Loomis had forgotten how to sing his song. This alludes to the fact that Loomis had an identity as a free man until Turner stole it from him. Turner took seven years of his life, ensuring he lost his family, livelihood, and faith. Once freed, Loomis didn't know who he was. But, once he finds Martha, he can say goodbye to her and to his former life. He is suddenly able to sing his song, which the stage directions call "the song of self-sufficiency." This symbolizes finding his identity. He walks out the door and into his new life.

Like all Wilson's plays, Joe Turner's Come and Gone is enriched by his interweaving of the legacy of African American music, customs, and spirituality, which draws on the culture of two continents. Bynum Walker is the character who shares and perpetuates African American customs through his songs and tales. The various songs and dances performed by Bynum and the other residents of the boarding house draw on both slave and African musical traditions. Bynum also embodies African spiritualism, performing functions such as blessing the house, as Bertha mentions in the first scene, and helping people find what they need. Bynum stands in sharp contrast to Herald Loomis, who has lost his "song." Herald embodies the post-emancipation African American. Adrift after being set free, he has lost touch not only with himself but also with his own culture. This shows in his angry response to the music that typifies that culture, such as the Juba. However, in the dramatic conclusion to the play, he experiences a rebirth that is not only personal but cultural when he is transformed into a shiny man.


Migration is another dominant theme in Joe Turner's Come and Gone. The setting of the play is a boardinghouse, where people can rent by the week. Therefore, the boarders are all people who want to have the ability to leave if they have an opportunity or if they need to beat it out of town.

Between 1910 and 1920, 500,000 African Americans fled the South. Jobs were scarce because of crop damage and discriminatory laws. With the exception of Seth and Bertha, all the characters in the play are moving or have moved. Bynum Walker has finally settled down after years of movement. Rutherford Selig, though not African American, is constantly on the move in his job as a peddler.

Jeremy Furlow represents this type of migration. He came to the North in the hope of finding a better life. In Act 1, Scene 1, Seth Holly says that the men who come to Pittsburgh to find freedom and jobs are "foolish-acting niggers." They think in the North they can get away from discrimination, but there is also discrimination in Pittsburgh. Jeremy learns this is true when he is arrested without committing a crime. Later he loses his job because he refuses to pay a white foreman 50 cents to keep it. Still hopeful, Jeremy moves on.

Herald Loomis and his daughter, Zonia, represent a different type of movement. They are looking to be reunited with family, having been separated by slavery. Rutherford Selig's job as a people finder for black people implies that there are a lot of people looking for other people. Migration is one reason for this. After emancipation a lot of African Americans had to look for family members from whom they had been separated. Many enslaved workers had been sold to different masters while slavery persisted in the South. What happened to Loomis was similar. He was taken from his home to work on a chain gang elsewhere in Tennessee. Seven years later he returned home but didn't find Martha. He has been in transit ever since. In the meantime, Martha has also migrated north.

The only characters who are not on the move are Seth and Bertha Holly and the boy next door, Reuben Mercer. However, Reuben indicates in Act 2, Scene 4, that he is willing to go on the move as well. In his case, he would do so in order to find Zonia again and marry her.

Racial Discrimination

"Ever since slavery got over with, there ain't been nothing but foolish-acting niggers," Seth Holly says at the beginning of Act 1. Seth thinks they're foolish to believe racial discrimination no longer exists simply because slavery has ended or because they are in the North instead of the South. They cannot expect to get a job that could have gone to a white man. White people will only hire black workers if there aren't white people available or if the black workers will work for lower pay.

Racial discrimination is a theme that affects every other aspect of the play Joe Turner's Come and Gone. The title refers to Joe Turner (actually Joseph Turney, 1850–1912), the brother of the governor of Tennessee. Even though slavery was over, Turner rounded up groups of black men and forced them to work on chain gangs. Before Herald Loomis was picked up by Turner, he had a family, a job, and a place in the community. But Turner didn't care about that. He saw Loomis as having no value except in the money he could make for Turner. Turner took Loomis away from his wife and daughter, ripping the family's world apart. Seven years later, Turner let him go, but he is now damaged to the core.

This is the ultimate in racial discrimination. However, there are other, smaller examples throughout the play.

The character of Rutherford Selig is one such example. Selig—whose German name ironically means "blessed"—does business with Seth and other black men. However, he also realizes he has the upper hand. Selig tries to pay less to Seth than he deserves for his wares. He also charges black people to spirit them away from someone they may be avoiding. Then he charges other people to find the same people he helped hide. Selig refers to his family's history as slave-catchers and bounty hunters. Although Selig may be making less than his father and grandfather, he is doing much the same type of business.

Jeremy has left the South, presumably because of discriminatory Jim Crow laws that enable whites to take advantage of him. However, he faces racial discrimination both in his job and in his music. In Act 1, Scene 1, Jeremy talks about playing his guitar in a contest held by a white man. Although the white man offered to give a prize to the best guitar player, he was just playing a practical joke on the three black participants. After the contest he told them they had to split a quarter between them. In Act 2, Scene 1, Jeremy has a similar experience when his white foreman tells all the black employees that they have to pay him to keep their jobs.

The other two themes, migration and search for identity, intertwine with the theme of racial discrimination. The characters are migrating in the post–Civil War era largely because of racial discrimination. Likewise, as a result of the practice of slavery, they or their ancestors were unable to establish their place in the world.

Questions for Themes

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