Research in African Literatures 30.4 (1999) 92-105
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Yoruba Gods on the American Stage:
August Wilson's Joe Turner's Come and Gone 1
Sandra L. Richards
Central to Joe Turner's Come and Gone are elements of memory and desire, both in terms of characters who are seeking to reorient themselves and in terms of August Wilson's self-described project of creating a body of plays that will help African (US) Americans more fully embrace the African side of their "double consciousness" (Du Bois 38). Set in 1911 during the Great Migration when hundreds of thousands of African Americans left the rural south to settle in northern, industrial centers, the play dramatizes the various wanderings of a group of African Americans in search of a place where they can feel at home in the world, that is, in search of an economic, social, and cultural environment that will enable their agency. Taking temporary refuge in a Pittsburgh boarding house, they share fragmented memories of family members before seemingly being propelled by desires for adventure, love, or single-minded purpose to journey further. Memory takes many forms: the story of a "shiny man"—suggestive of the Yoruba gods Ogun and Esu—who encourages fellow travelers to claim their predestined "song" in life; roots working and juba dancing, or African spiritual practices adapted to the ecology of the United States; and a temporal sensibility that simultaneously looks back to the Middle Passage and forward to Africa.
Chief among these roomers is Bynum, a conjurer, or priest-like figure, who early in the play, recounts a transformative experience involving a mysterious, shining man walking along a country road. Because the man promised to reveal the "Secret of Life," Bynum accompanied this man; eventually, he met his father who, grieved that his son seemed to be pursuing dreams not of his own making, taught Bynum how to find his own "song." Properly deployed, that song will enable him to have a unique impact, to make a "mark on life" (10). Since that experience, Bynum has taken as his life's task to"just like glue . . . [stick] people together"(10), and he hopes to confirm the validity of his choice someday by encountering another shiny man.
Critics Trudier Harris and Kim Pereira have noted that Bynum's description of the shiny man as "One Who Goes Before and Shows the Way" has Biblical resonances, but with the exception of Paul Carter Harrison and Pereira, who offer brief comments, virtually no other critic has probed the narrative's relationship to Yoruba cosmology. In failing to identify this intertext, critics and audiences miss several things. Wilson has fashioned a diaspora text that, given its specific reference to Yoruba belief systems, posits migrancy as the norm and implies an Africa that is always, already hybrid. His drama runs counter to the desire for a site of pristine origin found in many African (US) American discourses of identity. Furthermore, rather than reading the play as an instance of realism that bewilderingly [End Page 92] lurches into the realm of the supernatural (see D. Richards), viewers can profit from understanding Joe Turner . . . as a tragedy modeled upon Wole Soyinka's deployment of the myth of Ogun, whom he characterizes as "[t]he first actor . . . first suffering deity, first creative energy, first challenger" who risked his own psychic disintegration in order to reunite the gods with mankind (144). As such, the Wilson drama posits a holistic view of life, implying thereby a link between individual spirituality and collective, political consequences. It marks a continuity between Wilson and those "angry" black playwrights of the 1960s, but this link between spiritual apprehension and political agency was largely forgotten after the assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., government suppression of political radicalism, and public retreat into consumerism. Hence, the outraged surprise and thinly disguised accusations of ingratitude lodged against Wilson after his recent "The Ground on Which I Stand" address and Town Hall debate with Robert Brustein in which he...