In the Pittsburgh Hills District of Pennsylvania in 1979, regular taxi cabs didn’t retrieve or deliver customers. Because they wouldn’t travel to the primarily African-American district, residents had to turn to unlicensed taxis called “jitneys” to get around town. Jim Becker owns the Jitney Station, which employs quite a few drivers, like Korean War vet Doub, a gossip named Turnbo, the alcoholic, Fielding, and a newly returned Vietnam vet, Youngblood—whose girlfriend, Rena, is convinced he’s straying. There’s also Becker’s son, Booster, resistant to following in his father’s footsteps of overseeing the jitneys, and Shealy, who runs a numbers operation out of the station. It’s the setup for August Wilson’s “Jitney”—the eighth play in his “Pittsburgh Cycle” series, which sheds light on African-American life in the 20th century throughout various decades.
Big Dawg Productions has shown two of the Cycle’s plays already. Along with TheatreNOW, the companies made a pact to host all 10 in an effort to evolve programming to better represent multifaceted sectors of life and art locally.
“Big Dawg is aware that plays written by black artists, with black casts, have been woefully under-represented in the Wilmington theatre landscape,” artistic director Steve Vernon says. “I had a gentleman’s agreement with Zach Hanner at TheatreNOW that, between our two companies, we would produce all of the Pittsburgh Cycle. He already had produced ‘Two Trains Running,’ and we put up ‘Fences,’ both last year.”
Cleod Nine Productions’ Regina McLeod and Daren Beatty had arranged to showcase “Jitney” at TheatreNOW before it shuttered in August. Vernon didn’t want their work to be lost, as they already had cast the play and done a smaller run at Morning Glory Coffeehouse.
“They did the heavy lifting as far as getting the show in front of an audience,” Vernon says. “Big Dawg’s board of directors [and I] decided we should offer them the chance to complete a longer run, as they had planned.”
McLeod, who did “Two Trains…” for TheatreNOW, is directing “Jitney.” The cast includes Maxwell Paige, Fracaswell Hyman, Josiah Bennetone, Clifton Ballard, Harkeem Brantly, Daren Beatty, Joy James and Dwayne Bell. “The characters are so layered and complex in a seemingly simple existence,” McLeod tells. “They navigate their way through situations where some would crumble. They make art, albeit abstract, out of life.”
Fracaswell Hyman, who has performed in every Wilson play locally, will take on Turnbo. Hyman’s love of character comes from immersing himself into his role’s point of view and how he reacts to the world. “And then make connections to my own life, values and experiences,” he adds. “It gives me the opportunity to explore aspects of myself that may not be dominant in my personality, but somewhere inside I can relate because human feelings are universal. For example, I don’t consider myself a gossip like Turnbo, but there is a small part of me that loves sharing a piece of juicy news.”
“Turnbo has an innate gift as a storyteller,”‘ McLeod clarifies. “[But] people only recognize [it] as his propensity to gossip.”
It sets in motion fear in the show’s only female character, Rena. She’s convinced her boyfriend and father of her child, Youngblood, isn’t being faithful.
“When I read her dialogue, it’s like I have said the same words, and felt the same emotions and determination she does,” says Joy James, who is playing Rena and co-producing the show. “Rena teaches me that inner-strength and determination to take care of business is inherent in people who want what’s best for themselves and their loved ones. Everything she does is to make a better life for her child, and if her significant other isn’t of the same mindset, then she is ready to continue on her own. She reminds me of the fortitude of single moms who have become selfless in order to create better circumstances for their children.”
The father/son relationship also gets explored in “Jitney.” It shows how expectations parents have for their children aren’t always met. Hyman is drawn most to that part of the storyline.
“The way fathers have dreams for their sons may not turn out the way they had hoped,” he explains. “[The play shows] how it can divide them, the hope of reconciliation, the struggle to find common ground. All of these themes are very personal for me in my life.”
Wilson’s creation of the world and people are palpable representations to an often unheard community. More so, his dialogue is poetic, according to Jones. “‘Jitney’ makes me laugh, cry, contemplate and reflect—I love it!”
McLeod is focusing on every last detail as a true reflection of Wilson’s world. The small stuff is what impresses the director most. The station is scattered with mismatch furniture to showcase decades of the business operations. “That includes the dirt, grime and set, all nicely aged and designed by Donna Troy,” McLeod says, with lighting by Jeff Loy and costuming by Victoria Hansley. “Wilson weaves the vernacular, characters, setting and time period to create an amazing literary tapestry. It’s almost seamless and inspires on so many levels.”
His snapshot of life comes with heavy themes still relevant today. Urban renewal and gentrification continue to impact city-planning nationwide. Even in Wilmington, NC, we see it often.
“It somehow continues to translate to the marginalization of people of color,” McLeod adds, “moving them and their businesses out of black communities across the country.”
The show also tackles stigmas and misrepresentations of black men, both sown by society and by the black community, according to McLeod. But, mostly, Wilson’s writing tackles the ins and outs of relationships and the humanness of needing connection and approval.
“Mr. Wilson allows audiences to see stories they did not realize existed,” Vernon says. “That’s an amazing example of artistry transcending expectations.”