Published on February 9th, 2014 | by Zoe A Drew-King


Joe Turner’s Come and Gone: Costumes of the Great Migration

In the first Tacoma production of Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, a powerful cast of local actors will explore one of Pulitzer-prize winning playwright August Wilson’s most influential works. Wilson’s distinct characters live in the world of post-Emancipation America during the Great Migration – the movement of six million African-Americans out of the rural South and into the urban Northeast, Midwest, and West in search of new beginnings. “Joe Turner” is the personification of the Southern white man who would track freed slaves and bring them back to the South. Set in 1911, the play takes place in a boarding house in Pittsburgh owned by Seth and Bertha Holly. The two are host to a makeshift family of guests, all hoping to find honest connections and affirm their identities.

Costume Designer Mishka Navarre was challenged to design a wardrobe that would integrate the cultural and social influences of the time, while revealing traits about the characters intimated by Wilson’s script. Her intricate work is pictured below, in a series of images by Post Defiance’s Creative Director, Kali Raisl. 


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Seth, a tin smith and co-owner of a boarding house in Pittsburgh, converses with peddler and “people-finder” Selig (pictured left). Selig’s character attempts to atone for his family’s history as slavers by trying to reunite families he encounters on his travels. Both men are of working class and have limited, worn wardrobes.



Bynum, a rootworker and powerful figure in the play, counsels newcomer Mattie. Like all the women in this show, Mattie wears a corset as an undergarment – all proper women of the time, despite their class, held onto this tradition until the early 1920s.

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Molly, a new resident of the boarding house, pauses in the doorway. Unlike the other women in the show, Molly’s dress is much more fashionable, favoring a more silhouetted look which developed over the course of the decade.


Circling the table in an after-dinner “Juba” – an African-style call and response number – the residents of the boardinghouse celebrate a moment of connection. As seen by the women’s dresses in this picture, bustles have been eliminated in the continued push towards utility above decoration.


Herald, a longtime resident of the boarding house, falls to the floor, recalling a religious hallucination. His long, dark coat is never removed over the course of the show, but a white shirt underneath the dark layers helps the actor’s face “pop,” even below the brim of a hat.


The events of the play take place over a series of several days, and in order to keep the wardrobe as authentic as possible, several actors have “recycled” looks – reusing the same skirt, pants, or shirt. Women of the time, regardless of social status, would only have at most six outfits in total.


After hearing Bynum singing about “Joe Turner,” Herald confronts him, expressing his emotional connection to that song’s context.



In this scene, Herald remarks on Mattie’s outfit, saying “that dress got a color to it.” The non-specificity as to what color was found in the dress delighted Navarre, who built 90% of the show.


In a joyful moment, Bertha (one of the co-owners of the boarding house), celebrates the importance of laughter. As a working woman, Bertha’s wardrobe is the most utilitarian of the women in the show, featuring a manageable skirt length, a reasonable volume of fabric, and a practical material.


Martha Pentacost, a preacher looking for someone from her past, visits with Herald and his daughter, Zonia. Martha’s occupation as a preacher justifies the slightly more antiquated design (reminiscent of the early 1900s) and the formal, more expensive jacket and hat.

Joe Turner’s Come and Gone serves as a memorable culmination of a local partnership between the Broadway Center, The Conversation, Immanuel Presbyterian Blues Vespers, Northwest Playwrights Alliance and Washington State History Museum. Over a period of six years, audiences witnessed readings of all ten plays in Wilson’s Century Cycle, voting that Joe Turner’s Come and Gone be the one to merit a full production. Local theater maker C. Rosalind Bell was the obvious choice to direct.

Joe Turner’s Come and Gone plays at the Theatre on the Square at 7:30 pm February 8, 15, 21, and 22, and at 3 pm on February 9, 16, and 23. Tickets are $19 and $32 per person. For tickets, please visit


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About the Author

Zoe A. Drew-King has made Tacoma her home for the last four years by attending the University of Puget Sound. Zoe will be graduating in May of 2014 with two B.A.s in English and Theatre Arts. She can often be found wading in the Sound at 1 a.m.

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