|August Wilson's boyhood home at 1727 Bedford Street in Pittsburgh.|
“Don’t put your business out in the street,” jitney station owner Becker advises his driver Youngblood after he gets into a fight with Turnbo, an older driver who always has his nose in other peoples' business. But in August Wilson’s Jitney—an ensemble drama about gypsy cab drivers in Pittsburgh’s Hill district—that’s a herculean task. Because everybody knows something about everybody else’s business.
Because everyone knows everyone in the Hill—Pittsburgh’s predominantly black neighborhood in the late seventies. And Wilson’s colorful cast of characters—who pass the time trading local stories, jokes and insults—are a microcosm of the neighborhood. Wilson’s ensemble includes four jitney drivers besides Becker: Turnbo, who is always more interested in the business of others than his own. Youngblood, a hot-headed young Vietnam veteran, determined to do right by his girlfriend Rena and their two-year-old son. Fielding, an alcoholic, who used to be a world-class tailor to jazz musician Billy Eckstine. And Doub, a Korean War veteran, who is Becker’s longtime friend. They’re visited by Shealy, a numbers runner who uses the station as his base; Rena, Youngblood’s girlfriend; and Philmore, a local hotel doorman and frequent jitney passenger.
|Historical marker in front of Wilson's boyhood home.|
Becker has run this car service for 18 years, but now he faces the threat of encroaching urban renewal. The city of Pittsburgh plans to close his jitney station in two weeks for redevelopment. To complicate matters, his son Booster has just gotten out of prison after serving a 20-year sentence for a crime of passion.
August Wilson wrote an early version of Jitney in 1979—called Jitney!—before he had any idea it would become part of his greatest achievement—his landmark “Pittsburgh Cycle” of ten plays chronicling the African-American experience in the 20th century. From 1979 to 2004, Wilson wrote one play for each decade, setting nine of the ten plays in the Hill District—his childhood home. Jitney was his first full-length play—and the only play of the cycle written in the decade in which it was set. (The play takes place in 1977.) Wilson garnered numerous awards for his Cycle plays, including two Pulitzer Prizes for Drama for Fences and The Piano Lesson. Jitney was awarded a New York Drama Critics Circle Award, the Outer Critics Circle Award and the Olivier Award for Best New Play. (Read a summary of each play here.)
Jitney received its first major professional production at Pittsburgh’s Allegheny Repertory Theatre in 1982. Invited to return to the play by the Pittsburgh Public Theatre in 1996, Wilson reworked particular scenes, expanded characters and clarified relationships, between station owner Becker and his son, and the young lovers Youngblood and Rena. He continued to develop the play as it went on to productions at eight regional theaters—including Center Theatre Group in 1999—before it opened to critical acclaim off-Broadway in New York and in London.
|Jazz mural on Wylie Avenue,|
one of the Hill's busiest streets
in the play.
August Wilson wrote Jitney when he was still learning how to make his characters talk. And in writing the intricate banter of their everyday lives—stories of neighbors and musicians, and gossip about one another—he created a profound portrait of their existence. In his hands, the quotidian story of one small jitney station—and its drivers—illuminates the universal story of a young man trying to do right by his family, a son seeking his father’s forgiveness, and a group of men seeking community. Stories of humanity, love, honor, and betrayal—rendered by a master playwright, just beginning.