I try to look at these plays from a different angle, a different perspective each time I read them.
This time I want to begin with Becker’s rule-based world. At the very beginning of Act 1, we are introduced to Becker’s Rules, a simple set of regulations for running the jitney operation. They are:
1. No overcharging.
2. Keep your car clean.
3. No drinking.
4. Be courteous.
5. Replace and clean tools.
Seems like a very simple list, easy to memorize. Right?
Well, we don’t have to go very far into the play to see that these very basic rules are not being followed. Drivers are discourteous. Drivers drink on the job. Cars are not kept clean. And that’s just for starters.
Again, at the end of Act 1, Booster accuses Becker of clinging to his rules, much like Obama accused Republicans of clinging to their guns and bibles. Do you all remember that? Back to the play, Becker’s rules caused him to disown his own son. Forever. He states, “I’m calling the deal off. You ain’t nothing to me, boy. You just another nigger on the street.” He meant it, and even we feel the sense of abandonment and dispossession that Booster must be feeling.
Then, near the end of the play, Fielding, the drinker on the job, mentions to Booster something being against Becker’s rules. And Booster responds that Becker’s rules got him into prison.
Yet in the end, what does Becker’s rules get Becker? Do they make his life appreciably better? Booster says, “. . . He ain’t got out of life what he put in. He deserved better that what life gave him. I can’t help thinking that.”
So let’s talk for a moment about rules. Becker lived in what one might call “a rules-based world,” a logical program using predefined rules to make deductions and choices. There are two basic failures of a rules-based system, however. For one, the system can’t make the rules up quick enough to deal with every situation, especially in a dynamic system. And two, a rules based system won’t change or update on its own and it lacks the capacity to learn from mistakes. In short, a rules-based system will eventually fail. That’s the tragedy of the rules-based system and the tragedy of this play.
But what is the opposite of a rules-based world? It is a systems-thinking framework that sees all the moving parts of an operation, can cope with complexity and uncertainly, learns from errors, and adapts to a dynamic, shifting reality.
As we proceed through these plays, we should look for that rules-based vs. systems-thinking framework for decision making.
We learn that Booster was very smart in science, winning the science fair every year in high school and eventually qualifying for a scholarship at Pitt. This was the 1950’s mind you, when Pitt was known mostly as a night school for the working class, not the elite research institution it is today. But we have every reason to believe that Booster may have had a systems-thinking way of looking at things that immediately put him at odds with his father’s rule-based framework, apart from his youthful indiscretions. There are suggestions to that end in various parts of the play
I also want to mention the invisible characters in this play, along with the characters who show up in other plays in the Cycle. Booster’s mother, Coreen, is hidden but ever presents is Becker’s present wife, Lucille, who we at least hear from periodically on the telephone. Many other wives and girlfriends are mentioned that we never see on stage. There is Shealy’s better half, Rosie, whose face haunts him whenever he thinks about another woman. There is Cigar Annie, recently evicted from her condemned building, homeless, who, pantyless, flashes motorists on the street. There is Susan McKnight, the white girl who gets Booster in trouble in the first place. He killed her. She’s dead. There is Fielding’s wife. We don’t even get her name. She’s been gone for 22 years, but she still loves him. Just ask Fielding. Philmore’s wife put him out. He lives with his mother. Next week his wife is going to be begging him to come back. We never meet Peaches, Rena’s sister, though Turbo seems to be obsessed with her presence. Doub and Turbo are both single, and study group members in the past have intuited that Turbo is a closet homosexual.
Pope, who runs the closing restaurant down the street, is mentioned. He is also mentioned in the 1960’s play, Two Trains Running. Stool Pigeon is mentioned, who we meet in seven Guitars and in King Hedley II. Jim Bono, from 1950’s play Fences gets a passing mention as being sick with cancer. Turbo hopes to take his place at a different jitney company. Memphis Lee is mentioned. He ran the diner in Two Trains Running. Finally Reverend Flowers, who preaches the funeral, also preached Floyd Barton’s funeral in Seven Guitar.
OK. There’s a lot more to discuss and a lot is covered in the previous session notes. Let’s dive into the deep water!
Scene by scene synopsis
Act 1 Scene 1. Introduces all the characters and their interrelationships. Tells us the central plot – the loss of the Jitney shop to redevelopment. Will the Jitney operation be just like Cigar Annie, evicted and on the street, showing motorists its private parts?
Act 1 Scene 2. More character development. The beginning of the Youngblood/Turnbo tension surfaces. Turnbo reveals his secret of Youngblood’s alleged infidelity to Rena (a bit of Iago, ya think?). Rena in turn confronts Youngblood with the allegation. Becker and Doub has a heart-to-heart about the disposition of the jitney station.
Act 1 Scene 3. A physical confrontation between Youngblood and Turnbo that accelerates in stages almost ends in disaster.
Act 1 Scene 4. Booster arrives home from 20 years in prison. Fielding falls out with Becker. Becker and Booster (father and son) talk at each other (not with each other) in a long dialogue. Both are grieving the loss of Coreen and each blames the other.
Act 2 Scene 1. Turnbo and Doub locker room about singers Lena Horne and Sarah Vaughan. Doub mentors Youngblood, reflecting on his own experiences as a soldier in Korea.. Turnbo and Youngblood continue the argument, but scaled down. Youngblood comes clean with Rena about the new house. They work it out. Becker mentors Youngblood. Fielding mentors Booster. Fatherhood never stops.
Act 2 Scene 2. Becker meets with the whole jitney team to discuss what is going to happen with the jitney operation. They decide to remain, get a lawyer, and fight.
Act 2 Scene 3. Becker dies in an accident at the steel mill where he is temporarily filling in. Booster learns of his father’s passing.
Act 2 Scene 4. After the funeral they all gather at the jitney station. Booster laments his and his father’s loss. Booster reconciles with the jitney team members. On his way out, the phone rings. After an initial hesitation, Booster answers the call with “car service.” We hope it means the jitney station will continue operation under Booster’s leadership.
Last minute thoughts.
Jitney takes place in a “jitney station.” Other Wilson plays take place in a single location. What role does place have on the unfolding of the plot in Wilson’s plays?
Wilson said in an interview that when he wrote Jitney in 1979, he “had not yet adopted an artistic agenda that advanced an African presence.” How does knowing that affect the order in which we study Wilson’s plays? Something to bear in mind as we read different plays.
Jitney, though set in 1977, written in 1979, and locally performed in the early 1980’s, didn’t make it to Broadway until 2000. Was it ahead of its time? Was it too contemporary? Was it too “black” for play-going audiences?
post discussion notes for Session #6
I think our first session went well and I’d love to get your feedback. Big thanks to everyone for their contributions to the discussion. I’ll be adding post discussion notes to the blog asap.
The insights from the Pittsburgh folks were so revealing. And everybody’s personal reflections added so much spice and flavor to the conversation (if you cook, you know spice and flavor are different things). The insight, for example, that families across the country, as well as successive generations, were affected by urban renewal provides an excellent launchpad for other plays in the Cycle as well as illuminating our own personal experiences. Hilda Doolittle said of Da Vinci’s Madonna of the Rocks words to the effect that it was not just a painting, it was a window into Da Vinci’s mind. We can similarly say that Jitney is not just a play, but a window. Moreover, it is a mirror, not matter what our ethnic background. We can see ourselves in the play at some level, if only a reflection of a reflection. You gotta check out Madonna of the Rocks. See my notes from Session #5.
At the expense of sounding like I’m playing favorites (because I really am not), I had to go back and read Robin’s notes in the chat. There’s a lot of context there. I am reminded of that part in one of the Superman movies where Superman goes up to the North Pole (or maybe it’s the South Pole) where the archives from his original planet Krypton are kept in crystals (lots of metaphor there!) inside a mountain cave. He breaks off a crystal and hears the voice of his father, Jo-El, telling him the history of his people and his family. Reading an August Wilson play is like breaking off a crystal and hearing a familiar voice tell the story. I could bend your ear forever about how Wilson is actually a master archivist. Only, though because I am an archivist in this, my third career.
Madelyn’s insight that the steel mills were already in a state of decline, dying as it were, makes it all the more poignant that Becker would return to the mill to meet his demise. We’ll see that theme play out, sort of, in Ma Rainey, where we witness a diva already on the descending slope of her career, bemoaning the loss of an art form.
The coffee pot is gurgling. Be right back.
What becomes of the Jitney station? It’s hard to know. But the impulse to start with nothing and build a business, an industry, a world (as Aunt Ester says of her ancestors in Gem of the Ocean) that satisfies a need continues unabated. Why did Becker have to die? That was a good discussion. There is a death in every play in the Cycle, as I reflect, except The Piano Lesson, which is full of ghosts anyway. Something to think about as we plow through.
I never managed to mention that, interestingly, there are no soliloquies in Wilson’s plays. People don’t talk to the gods or to themselves. People talk to other people. We see that in Jitney and it continues throughout
the Cycle. It’s a good communications model. Wilson says of Cutler in Ma Rainey, “He has all the qualities of a loner except the introspection.” Wow!
It’s the second cup of coffee talking!
I’ll close out here, check on the upload, and begin the next reading.
Enjoy your day!