Let’s start by defining the term. A Jitney is an illegal taxi service, operated outside the rules and fee structure of the city where it exists. Usually, there has been some problem with cabs picking up black riders, for whatever reason. So jitney systems arose to meet the unmet demand for transportation among black residents. Also referred to as gypsy taxis, though gypsy taxis normally operate as independent units while Jitney services operated as a group or network of cars and drivers from a central location with a standardized billing structure. A precursor, if you will, a forerunner to Uber and Lyft.
Jitney is distinguished from all other plays in the cycle in that it is the only play written in the decade in which it was set.
It helps to review notes from previous sessions. I can focus on things that were not emphasized earlier.
We did not focus in previous sessions on the fact that this is the only play in the cycle so far that has two military veterans, Doub and Youngblood. We see a bit of resulting bonding between them early in Act 2 Scene 1, brothers at arms. Everyone else exits and they have the space to themselves to talk about their experiences in the military. It is a beautiful father-son type chat and Doub gives Youngblood some useful advice, life hacks.
There are not that many military veterans in Wilson’s plays, even though Wilson himself spent a year in the military. If we stretch the definition, we can say Solly Two Kings served in the Civil War, but certainly Gabriel Maxsom and Floyd Barton served in World War II, Doub in Korea, and Youngblood in Vietnam.
In fact, Youngblood is the big beneficiary in this male-dominated work environment. We don’t get any information about Youngblood’s actual father, but he gets “fathered” by all the other members of the group at various times. Lucky him. Even in his often strained relationship with Turnbo, he receives fathering and mentoring. I imagine Wilson was consciously or subconsciously replicating his own experience with father figures, whether his own absentee father, Frederick Kittel, or men in the neighborhood who took an interest in him, or David Bedford, the man who married his mother after his father’s death, all of whom, it may be argued, find expression among the older male characters in his plays.
Three characters in Jitney are old men who either “survived” failed marriages or were unlucky in love in general. Shealy, the numbers running and hustling driver, was “cursed” by Rosie and sees her face in every woman he meets. Fielding, the alcoholic former tailor driver who is still in love with his wife, has been separated from her for twenty-two years (who counts years of separation?). He tells us that three times over the course of the play. Philmore, the gainfully employed elevator operator, has been “put out” by his wife.
Doub refuses to speak about women or money, though we find out in conversation he has a railroad pension, like Doaker in the Piano Lesson. Finally, Turnbo, who knows everybody’s business, chapter and verse, makes no mention of a love life, and some observers have said he may be a closet homosexual, though I never got the full story. Something about his obsession with other people’s lives may have sent that signal. There is also something strange about the name, Turnbo, that may suggest he “turns about” from what might have been considered “normal” behavior in a heterosexually normalized 70’s environment.
I am certain we will talk at length when we meet about the Becker-Booster father-son relationship in the play and how it all plays out. All other things being equal (of course they re not; they never are), while I understand Becker almost intuitively, my deepest sympathy lies with Booster. We can do a vote in class before we discuss it.
Jitney is the second play in the cycle where we get to take a cold hard look at urban renewal, the first being the loss of Memphis’s diner in Two Trains Running. The Jitney station is about to be boarded up under the guise of improving the city. In most cases, in fact, urban renewal destroyed the black business community by building big highways and large scale building projects that destroyed business-to-business revenue and black business concentration in cities wherever it was applied. Accompanying the destruction of the black business community like a one-two punch came the resettling of black neighborhoods out of the city center and into suburban locations. Ultimately, black families were broken up, although that was only a side effect. Certainly, communities and neighborhoods lost their cohesiveness, their physical unity. A lot to be said here. A good read is the spatial deconstruction stuff you can still find online by and about young Howard student, housing and rape awareness activist Yolanda Ward, who was mysteriously murdered before reaching her prime as a social activist. Here is her obituary.