Thursday, August 30, 2012

Joe Turner's Come and Gone - August Wilson

August Wilson (1945-2005)

I'm not the hugest fan of August Wilson's work. I think his plays oversimplify the issue of the African American diaspora and try to distill a comprehensive subject into issues of racism and discrimination. His characters are often one dimensional, reminiscent of the made for TV series "Roots," out of the jungle operating on primitive animalistic impulses and a moral code of survival of the fittest.

While William Dean Howells believes we all have personal responsibility for our actions, not just for our own benefit but for the foundation of society, Wilson's characters haven't quite figured out where they fit into a society that until recently bought and sold them like chattel and continues to keep them in a form of purgatory where the only responsibility they can have is to survive. Although by 1911, when this play takes place slavery is technically illegal, Joe Turner has captured Herald Loomis making him and the other black men and women he's captured work for 7 years on his plantation in order to earn their freedom.

When Loomis finally does earn his freedom 7 years later and returns to his home his wife is missing and only his small daughter remains. Loomis begins a 4 year search for his wife that brings him to a boardinghouse owned by Seth and Bertha Holly. Upon arrival, Loomis strikes the Holly's as being somewhat crazy and a little scary, but after negotiating rent he becomes one of the many boarders and joins a motley cast of characters.

We first meet Jeremy, one of the other boarders, coming back to the boardinghouse after an evening spent in the city jail. When asked how he ended up in the jail he says a couple of officers asked him what he was doing and finding out that it was payday and that he and a compatriot were planning on splitting a pint, decided to preemptively arrest him. There is a collective sigh, and Bertha says "Leave the boy alone Seth. You know they do that. Figure there's too many people out on the street they take some of them off. You know that."

So our first impression is that obviously Jeremy is just another casualty in an irrevocably flawed system. But as the play progresses and he's willing to jump into bed with the first and next attractive broad he sees, his moral aptitude comes into question and we decide that maybe he could have done something to deserve a night in the slammer. He's seems hopeful and passionate at first, but after he's wooing the second unattached woman boarder, while already having lured another woman to share his room...he definitely begins to fall under the reprobate category.

Is society responsible for the degenerative system of morals for the African American? While Howells characters are too nervous to even consider marrying a divorced woman and instead pine secretly away for the rest of their dreary lives, Wilson's characters don't even discuss marriage. Rather they discuss the difference between jumping into bed with a woman vs. "grabbing a hold of a woman."

"Now you take a fellow go out there, grab hold to a woman and think he got something 'cause she sweet and soft to the touch. All right...Touching's part of life...But when you grab hold to a woman, you got something there. You got a hold world there. You got a way of life kicking up under your hand. That woman can take and make you feel like something. I ain't talking about in the way of jumping off into bed together and rolling around with each other. Anybody can do that. When you grab hold to that woman and look at the whole thing and see what you got....why, she can take and make something out of you."

After listening to this provocative lecture, a woman enters looking for a room and Jeremy decides to skip the grabbing hold to part and get straight to the jumping into bed part.

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