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.


2 thoughts on “post class notes – Jitney (9.24.2018)

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