Tuesday, May 8, 2012

"Jitney" — Where August Wilson Began

Directors Note:

Sometimes when asked to write something about the project I am working on I shy away from it. But with August Wilson it seems to be easy to talk about the experience, and what it means as an artist to work on his plays, in particular Jitney, one of my favorite plays of all time. I had the good fortune of working on the play as an understudy to "The Wilsonites" as I like to call them. I worked with powerhouse actors Paul Butler, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Anthony Chisholm, Russell Hornsby, Willis Burks II, Michole Briana White and Barry Shabaka Henley, who I feel are friends to this day even though our paths haven't crossed much over the years. That Jitney experience never left me.

Director Ron OJ Parson

Understudying can be a very frustrating and difficult job, but it was such a family atmosphere that it was a joy and pleasure to be around in whatever capacity. I felt like a sponge soaking it up. My mother fell ill during the run, and again it felt like I was with family during that trying time. Working on this production of Jitney, and all of August's plays, I feel his spirit exist in the room at all times. Watching August and my friend and mentor Marion McClinton work their magic was an experience I can never replace. Thank you, Marion. That experience has given me some insight that I know has helped in every Wilson play I have directed or acted in.

With this production we have assembled a great cast and I feel honored to be working with Charlie Robinson, someone whose work I have admired for many years. It has been such a joy bringing Jitney to life again.

I want to thank SCR for giving me the opportunity to tackle another August Wilson masterpiece, making it my 19th August Wilson production. I have to say a special thank you to Steve (Henderson), for pushing me and giving me the confidence to continue my career when I was about to chuck it in, and I would also like to dedicate this production to Israel Hicks, Paul Butler and Willis Burks II, three pioneers in the business who influenced me without even knowing it. They left us too soon. And of course, thank you August for making all our lives richer.

Peace,

Ron OJ Parson
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.
Commenting on the Wilson’s characters, Ben Brantley of The New York Times wrote: “Real life, whether comic or tragic, is the best show in town in the Hill District.  Mr. Wilson’s characters get as much of a thrill from sitting in the audience of observers, kibitzing and criticizing and retelling local dramas as they do from being the major players.  Set in the 1970’s, Jitney could be described as just a lot of men sitting around talking.  But the talk has such varied range and musicality, and it is rendered with such stylistic detail, that a complete urban symphony emerges….What gives the play its extraordinary verve is how the characters define themselves—and by extension, the hardscrabble world in which they exist—through bristling dialogue and tasty anecdote.”

Wilson—In His Own Words

Playwright August Wilson
“I think the primary concern is to do the work to the best of your ability and to fulfill its aesthetic requirements.  My audience, if I thought of one, would be Ibsen, O’Neill, Miller, Williams, Baraka, and Bullins—my fellow playwrights who have wrestled with the problems of the art form and have contributed to my understanding of it.  When I sit down to write, I am sitting in the same chair that Ibsen sat in, that Brecht, Tennessee Williams, and Arthur Miller sat in.  I am confronted with the same problems of how to get a character on stage, how to shape the scenes to get maximum impact.  I feel empowered by the chair.  For years I sat in that chair and tried to best my predecessors, to write the best play that’s ever been written.  That was my goal until I ran across a quote by Frank Lloyd Wright, who said he didn’t want to be the best architect who ever lived.  He wanted to be the best architect who was ever going to live.  That added fuel to the fire and raised the stakes, so to speak.  Now you’re not only doing battle with your predecessors but with your successors as well.  It drives you to write above your talent.  And I know that’s possible to do because you can write beneath it.”

-from an interview in the 
Paris Review
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.

A Jitney Station on the Hill

2046 Wylie Avenue - the front of the jitney station.
As the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s full-time theatre critic and theatre editor from 1983 to 2008, Christopher Rawson chronicled August Wilson’s career in detail, starting with his Broadway debut in 1984, and compiled a comprehensive record of reviews, interviews and new stories about his work.  In his new book, August Wilson: Pittsburgh Places in His Life and Plays (co-authored by Laurence Glasco), he details the many Pittsburgh locations mentioned in Wilson’s plays, including this operating jitney station on the Hill.

The working pay phone
in the jitney station.
WESTBROOK JITNEY STATION
2046 Wylie Avenue

This building stands as an example of the many jitney stations that were needed because taxis would not service the Hill.  It is popularly referred to as the Wylie and Erin Jitney Station.

Sala Udin (then Sam Howze) says that he, August Wilson and Rob Penny often met at the Pan Fried Fish restaurant operated by two brothers, Clifford and Irv, on Wylie Avenue near Arthur and Roberts Streets.  Wilson typically arrived before the others and passed the time at a jitney station next door, listening to the drivers brag and laugh, telling stories, both true and invented.

Inside of the station with
manager Tom Wilson.
Similarly in Jitney, the men keep going next door to Clifford’s to get a fish sandwich.  The building Wilson frequented had disappeared by the time he wrote Jitney, and there are three other jitney stations mentioned in the play, but this one at 2046 Wylie Avenue can stand as the site of the play because its telephone number, 412-566-9802, recalls the number of the vanished station, Court 1-9802.  If you are invited inside, you will see it looks just like the stage set Wilson describes, with the exception of the television set.  The old-fashioned pay telephone still rings constantly.

Read Mr. Rawson’s article “The Pittsburgh Cycle” about Wilson’s epic 10-play cycle here.


2 comments:

  1. Saw the play, brought new friends. This is theater at its best. Great writing, solid relationships (from good acting and directing) and thus great story telling. Also notice you are practicing good Audience
    (R)Evolution by putting lots of background in the program and on the web site. This definitely added to our enjoyment of the play and to our after play conversation. Keep up the good work, and please push your new playwrights to write about such subjects.

    Ken Dalena, Laguna Beach

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    Replies
    1. South Coast RepertoryJune 1, 2012 at 4:46 PM

      Thanks Ken! We've always felt the importance of having good dramaturgy about our productions in our programs and our website. We want people to have an experience beyond just the show that they are seeing on the stage.

      Thanks for your wonderful feedback!

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