Notes on Jitney (5.3.2019)

Some thoughts to discuss:

Background and lifecycle of the play itself. The first edition of Jitney was completed in the 70’s and performed in 1982 by a small theater group in Pittsburgh. Wilson completed writing that early version of the play in ten days. Although it became the first completed play in the century cycle, at the time of its writing Wilson had no idea he’d be writing a play for each decade. Following his success with a produced play, Wilson declared himself a playwright and submitted Jitney to the Playwrights’ Center in Minneapolis in the mid 80’s, receiving a prize award of $2500. But when he submitted it to the National Playwrights’ Conference of the O’Neill Theater Center in New York it was rejected. Twice. He put it away and worked on other plays. Then, after completing Seven Guitars in 1985, he took a second look at Jitney and revised it, making the second act longer and adding several monologues throughout. Jitney was produced off Broadway in 2000, directed by Marion McClinton. In 2017 it was produced on Broadway as a revival, where it earned the Tony for Best Revival.

Characters as individuals. Jim Becker, called, “Becker,” manages the jitney station, which he has run for several years. He is a community pillar-type guy, retired from the mill, a homeowner, and deacon at his church. He settles squabbles between the other drivers. Doub, one of the drivers, even-tempered, is a Korean War veteran. Fielding, another driver, is an alcoholic, and was formerly a tailor who clothed for Count Basie and Billy Eckstine. Turnbo, yet another driver, gets involved in everybody’s business and also has a hot temper when he feels he has been disrespected (which is most of the time). YoungBlood (Darnell Williams), is the youngest driver on the staff. He is a Vietnam veteran in his late 20’s. He works several jobs to support his young family. Rena is YoungBlood’s girlfriend and the mother of his young son, Jesse. Shealy uses the jitney station payphone to run his numbers operation. Philmore is a frequent jitney customer and a doorman at a local hotel. Booster (Clarence Becker), Becker’s son, is in his early 40’s. An outstanding scholar athlete in high school, he has just completed a 20-year prison sentence for murder.

Characters as groups and relationships. A key relationship in the play is the father-son relationship between Becker and his son, Booster. Booster showed great promise in his youth and earned a scholarship to Pitt. But in his first year he gets tangled up with a young coed and when they are caught in a compromising position, she claims rape. Long story short, he ends up murdering her and spending 20 years in prison. Pops is extremely disappointed and never visits Booster in the 20 years of his incarceration. When Booster is released, they attempt in a staccato way to rebuild their relationship.

Rena and YoungBlood are learning to be a couple and their relationship in the play floods and ebbs. Doub and Youngblood, both veterans but of different generations, have an interesting almost father-son relationship. Becker and Youngblood have a similar father-son relationship. Fielding has an on and off relationship with Becker, his employer basically. In that light, Becker has an ongoing relationship with each driver. Turnbo has a very toxic relationship with YoungBlood. Shealy and Becker are pretty much polar opposites.

Compressed space considerations (play setting compared to others in the series). Each play in the series is set in a compressed space where characters sort of bounce off each other. The Jitney Station is no exception and if anything, breaks new ground for starkness and sterility for a Wilson play setting, in my opinion. That starkness and sterility adds to the plot flow as much as anything. The payphone is a handy device for pushing the action along. Jitney orders come in, as do numbers orders, as do phone calls from a variety of callers, family members, potential employees, outside contacts. Today, of course, Jitney operations would exist exclusively online (like Uber and Lyft) without the requirement for a station, much less a physical payphone.

Current events of the time, i.e., urban renewal and gentrification, incarceration, returning Vietnam Veterans, informal economy, fratricidal arguments. Urban renewal is a primary motive force in the play. The prospective boarding up and eventual destruction of the jitney station has everybody on edge as it may mean a potential end of employment and an end to an essential community service that has become a means of production. Mention is made of other business getting boarded up in the community. Eventually, whole communities are lost to urban renewal, with the promise, of course, that substitutes, especially for housing, will be forthcoming. In retrospect, we can see the beginning, not only of lost of business communities, but also of the problem of homelessness that plagues many American cities today. Spatial deconcentration, a by-product of urban renewal, resulted in the break-up of communities, of economies, of families.

It was also a time of returning Vietnam War veterans, many looking for a reward for their service overseas. We see that representation in YoungBlood, but we also see it in Booster, returning the world, as the vets used to say, trying to figure things out after 20 years of incarceration. Returning vets, returning prisoners, looking for jobs where there were none, resorted to making ends meet in the informal economy, some call it the black or gray economy, outside the rules and regulations of regular business. Jitney companies’ emerged, providing rides and jobs for drivers in a place where there were few transportation options. August Wilson said, “The important thing was for me to show five guys working and creating something out of nothing.” This was one aspect of the informal economy, and perhaps a positive one. There were negative ones: selling drugs, prostitution and the beginning of human trafficking all emerged during this same period.

The repetition of fratricidal arguments in the struggling community, conflicting egos, some actually trying to do right, is represented in Jitney in the big argument between YoungBlood and Turnbo that almost ends in catastrophe. In Scene 3 of Act One, murder and tragedy are avoided but we have a good model for how normal differences coupled with misunderstandings can get escalated into chaos.

Central ethical theme of responsibility, even when options for exploration are limited. We will discuss this at length in our group meeting. Wilson, through Becker, Youngblood, Doub, and Booster (and others) dedicates lengthy sections of monologue to the theme of responsibility, moral and ethical.

Checkers vs. chess and other games of strategy. Just a short mention of checkers is in the play, but it made me consider some of the ramifications of game-playing in the series and how it evolves over the decades, from the hambone of Joe Turner, to the card-playing in Seven Guitars, to sports in Fences, to checkers in Jitney, to golf later in Radio Golf.

Notes from Session #1:
https://augustwilsonstudygroup.wordpress.com/2019/05/03/notes-on-jitney-5-3-2019/

Notes from Session #2:
https://augustwilsonstudygroup.wordpress.com/2018/09/23/notes-on-jitney-for-9-24-2018/

https://augustwilsonstudygroup.wordpress.com/2018/09/25/post-class-notes-jitney-9-24-2018/

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