Joe Turner's Come and Gone

Setting:  1911
Written:  1984
Huntington Production:  1986

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Joe Turner's Come and Gone Characters
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Curriculum Guide


  • BERTHA HOLLY: Seth's wife of 25 years and 5 years his junior. She knows her place in the hierarchy of the boardinghouse, yet still has some say in the decision-making and will often voice her opinion. A very loving mother to the boardinghouse family. In the end, she tells Mattie that the only two things you need in your life are love and laughter; the things that she has had faith in and have helped her get by.
  • HERALD LOOMIS: A resident of the boardinghouse. Having been enslaved by Joe Turner for seven years, Loomis has completely lost his way in life. An odd man that dons an overcoat and hat in mid-August, Loomis is 32 years old and a displaced slave searching for his wife. In the end he finds his song, an independent, self-sufficient song that he can sing proudly.
  • MARTHA LOOMIS PENTECOST: Herald Loomis’s wife. She is about 28, very religious and a member of the Evangelical church. She left the South and her daughter behind. She does what it takes to ensure her self-preservation and remains a strong, self-sufficient woman until the end.
  • RUTHERFORD SELIG: A peddler. Known as the “People Finder,” he is the only white character in the play. Selig is from a family that first brought Africans across the Atlantic to become slaves, but now he unites people by recording the names and places of all the people he peddles to.
  • JEREMY FURLOW: A resident of the boardinghouse, he is 25 years old. He represents a younger generation seeking to find its identity as the first liberated slaves. Jeremy's "blues playing" character is classified as a suave, artist young man looking to make a quick buck and travel the nation. He is constantly seeking the attention of the women in his vicinity and tries to find the perfect girl for himself.
  • SETH HOLLY: Owner of the boardinghouse in his early fifties. Born of free African-American parents in the North, he is set in his ways; never losing his composure and always running a respectable house. He even condemns other African-Americans that do not follow this kind of lifestyle. He is economically very capitalistic and does whatever is necessary to stay afloat; including working night shifts and odd craftsman jobs he can pick up from Selig. He understands his world on a very literal level, and doesn’t aspire to become more than he is.
  • BYNUM WALKER: A rootworker in his late sixties. A "conjure" man staying with the Holly's at the boardinghouse, Bynum is one of few characters that understands his own identity. Convinced of the fact that everyone has their own song, Bynum perpetuates the theme of identity and our constant search for it.
  • REUBEN MERCER: A boy who lives next door. Reuben represents the repetitiveness of history. Even as an adolescent, Reuben is aware of his place in society, notices the spiritual differences of people around him, and decides at a very early age that he needs a woman to settle down with and marry. Many of the ideals that are seen in the adult characters of this play are instilled in Reuben and will repeat, the good and the bad, as he grows into adulthood.
  • MOLLY CUNNINGHAM: A resident. She is a good looking young woman of 26 who is strong and independent. Unwilling to let herself be told what to do by anyone, Molly is convinced that she will never return to the South and refuses be associated with anything that her old life entailed.    

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It is August of 1911, a generation after Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation granted legal freedom to all enslaved Africans in America.  Still subject to Jim Crow discrimination in the rural South, black Americans have begun migrating to the industrial cities of the north, seeking work and the opportunity to establish a life with dignity for themselves.

Seth Holly, born of Northern free parents, and his wife Bertha, run a boarding house in Pittsburgh where many of these itinerant workers pass time while sweeping through the northern cities in search of jobs.  ON such boarder who approaches the Hollys for a place to stay is Herald Loomis.  Loomis is an intense, odd man of thirty-two who has come to Pittsburgh from Memphis with his eleven-year-old daughter, Zonia, to search for a wife who abandoned them.  There is a sense of violence lurking under Loomis’s steely exterior, a dark, explosive anger that causes Seth to be suspicious of this newcomer, and at first makes him reluctant to rent him a room; but Seth’s wife, Bertha, takes pity on the little girl and so Loomis allowed to stay.

The boarding house is full of other itinerants like Loomis looking for a place to put down roots and set up new lives.  Jeremy, a talented guitar player, has come up from North Carolina and gets work here and there in mills and on road crews until he is forced out by white immigrants competing for the same jobs.  Bynum is a mystic who works magic with roots and plants to “bind” people.  Mattie, a young girl whose man has left her, is seeking another man to whom she can belong until he also moves along without her. 

Loomis asks around about his wife, Martha, and engages the services of a white peddler, Rutherford Selig, who has a business on the side helping dispersed slave families to reunite.  Seth Holly knows of a woman in town who fits Loomis’s description, but refuses to reveal this to Loomis because of his suspicions about Loomis’s character.

After dinner one night, the boarding house begins to entertain itself by doing a juba, a rhythmic dancing and singing of hymns.  Loomis, who has been watching others in silence, suddenly explodes, venting his pent-up rage in a violent tirade against praising God.  He reveals himself for the first time as a man who has been cruelly abused by life, and asks his fellow boarders what they have to thank God for.  For the suffering and injustice that is their daily companion?  He rants about terrible visions, until he is no longer in his right mind and collapses.  The other boarders have listened in stunned silence to Loomis’s raging.  Bynum talks to Loomis and manages to calm him down.  Loomis’s violent outburst shocks and scares the other boarders.  Seth tells Loomis he has to leave after the week for which he is paid up.

Bynum, a healing man by nature, has taken an interest in Loomis.  He coaxes Loomis into revealing the trauma that has caused his rage, and Loomis relates his pathetic story.  Loomis was once a pious man who spent his time farming and spreading the word of God.  One day, he stopped to preach to a group of men gambling in the street, when the whole group was rounded up and arrested by Joe Turner’s men.  Loomis was forced to do hard labor for seven years as a result of his “crime.”  No word was ever sent to his family of his whereabouts, and when he was at last released he went home to find that his wife was gone and had left their young daughter nearby with her mother.  Loomis has been looking for her ever since, so that he can pick up the pieces of his life and find a place to start over again.

When Loomis’s week is up and they still have not located Martha, he and Zonia pack up to leave.  Just after they exit, Rutherford Selig, the peddler and “people finder,” enters with a woman.  It is Martha.  Just as Seth is telling them that they are too late, Loomis and Zonia, who have seen Martha coming, reenter.  It is an anxious reunion.  Loomis bitterly accuses Martha of abandoning him and their daughter.  Martha tries to explain that she thought he was dead, and that she was forced to come North because the members of their church, where Loomis had once been a devout member, were persecuted and forced to flee.  To everyone’s surprise, Loomis tells Martha that he is moving on, and leaving Zonia with her; he says that he chased her all these years just so he could say his goodbye and start over again.  He tells Zonia she has to go live with her mother now.  He tells them all that no man or woman is going to bind Herald Loomis any more.  Joe Turner has come and gone, and now Loomis is free.  He pulls a knife as if he expects someone to try and stop him from leaving.  Martha, aghast at his behavior, begins reciting Psalms, trying to win his soul back to Jesus, but Loomis can no longer believe that there is any justice in religions or find any comfort in the idea of heavenly salvation as a reward for his suffering on Earth.  Jesus is a white man, a Simon Legree asking him if he has done his day’s work, and then throwing him a scrap of a promise of salvation and asking him to live on that.  Loomis says goodbye to Martha and leaves, knowing that he can at last make his way on his own legs.

(From the Huntington’s curriculum guide for Joe Turner’s Come and Gone)

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