post class notes – Jitney (9.24.2018)

Introduction – recapitulation:

There has never been a series of plays written detailing/examining life and society in each decade of a century until August Wilson’s Century Cycle. All the plays except one are set in Pittsburgh (week two’s play, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, is set in Chicago), but the setting could easily have been any city that served as a destination city in the Great Migration. My own North Carolina family has branches that have expanded over the generations in New York, Baltimore, Washington, Columbus, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Chicago, St. Louis, wherever there were jobs.

Only three theaters on Broadway are named for playwrights: Eugene O’Neill; Neil Simon; and August Wilson. We know from interviews that August Wilson said he never saw a play performed on stage before he started writing them, but I think it is safe to assume he had read plays during that autodidactic period (several years) he spent skipping school and making daily visits to the Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh.

Finally, no single city or place “owns” August Wilson. He sought to capture the spirit of a diaspora, of a movement of people and their adaptations to the new world they found themselves in. We will explore that idea in greater depth next week in Ma Rainey.


Like Shakespeare’s colleagues who collected his plays part by part, monologue by monologue, and soliloquy by soliloquy several years after his death, I’ll rely on you all to help me fill in the gaps I miss of our discussion each week. Please feel free to do so in the comments to this blog or in the submissions to the Google Group (or even in emails we send to each other). All channels are open. Below are a few notes I took to jog my memory.

We talked at length about the relationship between Becker and his son, Booster. Had time been available, we could have talked about Youngblood and Rena, or about the tender father/son relationship Becker built with Youngblood while Booster was incarcerated, or about the relationship mentioned briefly in our discussion between Becker and any single member of the cast/ensemble/community that “hung out” and was employed in one way or another at the jitney station. Those relationships were dynamic things, evolving and enriching the humans involved as well as reinforcing the knitted structure of the otherwise fractured community.

We spoke particularly about how the characters of Becker and Booster changed over time, with respect to each other and with respect to their own, individual development. We hypothesized Booster’s inability to process events that happened in his childhood, his arrested development while incarcerated, and his return to a development path after serving his prison term and returning home. We speculated that perhaps, given sufficient time, or perhaps it was even imminent, Booster and Becker would reconcile and get their relationship back on a solid developmental path. But Becker died in the factory, and, we anticipate, Booster took over the jitney operation.

I confess I had not focused on Turnbo’s passing mention of the Sputnik and its impact until someone in class today brought it up,

Booster he liked science….won first place three years in a row (in the science fair)…. had his picture in the paper…. They let him into the University of Pittsburgh. You know back then they didn’t have too many colored out there, but they was trying to catch up to the Russians and they didn’t care if he was colored or not. Gave him a scholarship and everything.

After zeroing in on that passage at the beginning of Act 1 scene 3, I understood that not only was Becker extremely disappointed in Booster’s outcome, Turnbo was also disappointed. It may help explain the conflict we see between Turnbo and Youngblood, perhaps misplaced (or displaced), but reflective of Turnbo’s disappointment and disgust with the next generation, who, perhaps he felt, had opportunities that his generation did not. The same passage also provides a glimpse into the relationship between Booster and Susan, barely a glimpse, but enough to fuel our speculations.

We talked about the authenticity and poetic nature of the language of the play. And we talked about the exclusion, or the explicit absence of whites in the play’s action, in the scenes as portrayed, but of their presence behind the scenes, their implicit presence, a sort of second order existence throughout.

Okay. I am going to stop here and let you all chime in with your reflections.

Late entry: I left out our discussion of Wilson’s 4B sources of inspiration:

Jorge Luis Borges (the librarian and poet),
Romare Bearden (the collagist and painter),
Amiri Baraka (the Black Arts movement poet, dramatist, and essayist),
and the Blues.


Notes on Jitney for 9.24.2018

Briefly, Jitney was August Wilson’s first big success at playwriting. Set in Pittsburgh, it played to sell out crowds in local theaters in 1982. It was late getting to Broadway, finally, in 2000, but to mixed reviews. But in 2017 it won the Tony for Best Revival and was a sensational success. Finally, the video of the revival Broadway production actors discuss the idea that Wilson began writing Jitney, put it down to write Seven Guitars, then returned to Jitney later. Some characters and lines overlap…

First, here is a link to the episode of Theater Talk that featured the Tony-award winning cast of Jitney in 2017:

This one is also good:


At the time of Jitney’s writing, August Wilson did not know (or was not aware) that he would be writing a century series of ten plays.

Some themes to consider as the plot(s) develops:

  1. urban renewal/re-development. Cities that were the destination in the Great Migration being deconstructed, economic concentrations dissolved.
  2. “black market” entrepreneurism. Unemployment high, services not being provided to black communities open door to off-the-books businesses.
  3. relationships (men/women, men/men, father/son). Youngblood and Rena learning how to cope with each other. Becker and Booster, same. Youngblood and Turnbo conflict.
  4. conflict resolution/manhood
  5. incarceration/prison reform. Booster released. Counterpart to Youngblood in a sense.
  6. rituals that punctuate daily life at the station. Checkers, the phone ringing, chats about relationships/women, blaming or not blaming whites for failures.

Cast of characters (from Professor Shannon):

Jim Becker, the well-respected manager of the jitney station. In his 60s.
Doub, a driver, cautious and slow going, a Korean War veteran. One of few August Wilson characters who is a military veteran.
Fielding, a driver, an alcoholic, formerly a tailor who clothed Billy Eckstine and Count Basie.
Turnbo, a driver, notorious for being a gossip.
YoungBlood (Darnell), a driver. Recently returned from Vietnam, working several jobs to provide for his family. In his late 20s. Another rare veteran.
Rena, YoungBlood’s girlfriend and the mother of his young son, Jesse.
Shealy, a flamboyant bookie who uses the jitney station as the basis of his numbers running operations.
Philmore, a local Hotel doorman and a frequent jitney passenger.
Booster (Clarence Becker), Becker’s son, who has just completed a 20-year prison sentence for murder. In his early 40s.

  1. The Hopefuls (Youngblood)
  2. The Defeated (Fielding, Turnbo, Becker)
  3. The Warriors (Booster)
  4. The Survivors (Doub, Shealy, Philmore)

The 70’s:

  1. post-civil rights era
  2. Watergate
  3. Vietnam War build-up and end
  4. Roots on national TV
  5. Bakke and affirmative action
  6. Rapper’s Delight and the birth of hip hop


Early thoughts on The Cycle study group that starts next week, 9/24/2018

As I begin reading the first play, Jitney, it all seems so familiar, as if I have actually seen the play. but I haven’t seen Jitney on the stage. What I am seeing are images my mind created when I read it the first time (actually I read it twice) in preparation for last semester’s study group. Amazing thought, for me, at least.

Full Disclosures

I have to start with a full disclosure. I have no background, professionally or academically, in drama, playwriting, or even the arts. I studied engineering, economics, international relations, and library and information science, in that order. But I always loved plays, and have probably seen more August Wilson (and more Eugene O’Neill) plays performed on stage than the average bear. I do write poetry as Wilson did for years before he became a playwright, and I have had a few pieces published by small-time presses, as well as self-publishing a small collection of my own stuff (I gave away more copies than I sold, so I still claim the title “amateur,” doing it purely for the love of it).

That said, while last semester’s reading was a discovery for me and for many of the group members, this semester’s reading will be more about themes and analysis, plot and character development, and taking a deeper plunge into the soul of August Wilson through his words. Not that a lot of that did not happen last time; it did, but this time it will be more purposeful, more intentional.


The Community is the Curriculum. This concept comes from a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course), Rhizo15. Each person brings to the class and the course his or her reading of the play and ideas about it. But he/she also brings a wealth of information to the class about former professions and life experiences. Collectively and in the aggregate, that “syllabus” of information “informs” the discussion and thus becomes the unwritten curriculum for the course. Those are my words; get more background (and for future reference) on it at this link:

We will continue with the close-read method borrowed from the Coursera MOOC, ModPo (Modern and Contemporary American Poetry), followed by discussion. That is, each group member will select in advance a passage for discussion, develop some ideas about that passage, and present findings to the class. In the first week, we will combine that presentation with a brief intro/bio that will include the members learning ‘subjectives,’ another Rhizo15 term, i.e., what you hope to get out of the course and what you bring to the course out of your own background. It may start off a little clunky, but will get better as we know each other better. Here is more detail on close reading.

Chatham House Rules. Which is to say, what we discuss in class stays in class, or, to put a fine point on it, “When a meeting, or part thereof, is held under the Chatham House Rule, participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed.”

The N-word comes up as well as other, how shall we say, indelicate phrases. If it comes up in a passage you choose, you should feel free to speak the text as it appears, but use “air quotes” if that makes you feel more comfortable about using “off-color” language.

There may be some glitches with versioning, i.e., different editions of the play may have different page numbers. As much as possible, let’s stick to the Act and Scene convention when describing our selected passages. Just makes it easier.

OK. That may be more than enough for one sitting. I look forward to meeting you all next Monday!

Jitney opens September 24th!

Syllabus for August Wilson Study Group

Week 1 – Introduction to the American Century Cycle and the first play, Jitney Accessed August 24, 2018

TheaterTalk (Tony-award winning cast): Accessed August 24, 2018

NYTimes review of Jitney – Ben Brantley Accessed August 24, 2018

Short clip from Jitney: Accessed August 24, 2018

History of the 70’s Accessed August 24, 2018

Background pieces on August Wilson . Accessed August 24, 2018 Accessed August 24, 2018

Bill Moyers interview on You Tube: Accessed August 24, 2018

A You Tube playlist of excerpts from all the plays: Accessed August 24, 2018

The Light in August Wilson – Suzi-Lori Parks interview Accessed August 24, 2018

Minnesota Public Radio interview: Accessed August 24, 2018

Here is the link to the whole website from Minnesota Public Radio: Accessed August 24, 2018

Recommended Books:

Elkins, Marilyn (ed). August Wilson: A Casebook. From the series “Casebooks of Modern Dramatists.” Garland Publishers, Inc. 1994.

Nadal, Alan (ed). May All Your Fences Have Gates: Essays on the Drama of August Wilson. University of Iowa Press. 1994.

*Shannon, Sandra. The Dramatic Vision of August Wilson. Howard University Press. 1995

Bryer, Jackson and Hartig, Mary C. (eds). Conversations with August Wilson. University Press of Mississippi. 2006.

Nadal, Alan (ed). August Wilson: Completing the Twentieth- Century Cycle. University of Iowa Press. 2010.

*Temple, Riley. Aunt Ester’s Children Redeemed. Cascade Books. 2017.

* My Favorites