Consolidated notes from all sessions of Jitney (5) posted to substack here:
Looking back, so many subjects from the play have been exhausted. We will go over many of them in the discussion.
Jitney was, in effect, written twice. Wilson wrote it in 1979, the only play in the cycle written in the same decade in which it was set. It was performed to sell-out crowds in Minnesota. Legend has it that Wilson was inspired to write the play after using a jitney on one of his return visits to Pittsburgh. Upon his return to Minnesota, he started and finished the first draft in ten days. According to separate accounts, he sat at a nearby Arthur Treacher’s Fish & Chips in St. Paul while writing the play.
After one run, Wilson submitted the play to the O’Neill Playwrights Conference. It was rejected, and Wilson stashed it away to work on new plays. In 1982, he submitted the play to the Allegheny Repertory Theater in Pittsburgh, where it experienced sell-out performances. But It only ran for one season. Then in 1985, the play was performed again in Minnesota, while he was in the process of writing his next two plays. In 1996, eleven years later, the play was picked up for performance, again in Pittsburgh. Reminds me of the tale of two cities, almost, St. Paul and Pittsburgh.
By that time, Wilson had completed some six plays in the cycle, and had developed a successful method of revising a play during its rehearsal. He applied that new revision technique to Jitney during rehearsals in 1996, adding significant monologues to a play he considered too short, among other defects.
Why is this important?
I want to make a point here, perhaps an esoteric point, draw a comparison, and promote a conclusion, all in one fell swoop, but in perhaps three parts.
Please bear with me.
Another famous artist did another famous work twice. The artist was Leonardo Da Vinci and the double work of art is Virgin of the Rocks. The Virgin of the Rocks, theologically, is invoked during periods of plague, so it is timely for us now. The first ended up at the Louvre, the second, created because of a contract dispute, ended up in London.
Art experts can quibble over which one came first, and which one was entirely the hand of Leonardo, and which one may have been the work of Leonardo’s trusted assistants.
For our purposes, each one shows the Virgin Mary, the baby Jesus, the baby John the Baptist, and the angel Uriel (in some places referred to as Gabriel). The group allegedly met on the road during their flight to Egypt to escape Herod’s massacre of the first borns. They are seated in a pyramidal arrangement. John the Baptist points to the baby Jesus. Jesus acknowledges with a point or a wave. Mary holds her left hand protectively over the head of Jesus, while her right hand holds John’s shoulder. All four are depicted relating to each other, connected, but in the Louvre version, the angel is pointing to John but glancing out at the viewer.
One expert concluded that because of Da Vinci’s use of various glazes and because of the water formation in the background, for the viewer, looking at the painting is more like looking into a mirror. We’ll return to that.
The Wilson work, Jitney, similarly exists in an original and a revised version. His characters are presented in relationship to each other, Becker to Booster, Youngblood to Rena, Youngblood to Turbo (in a hostile, not a loving way), Becker to all the drivers (boss to employees) and vice versa. A type of mutual discovery is constantly taking place in the play, for better or worse, but mostly for the better. Certainly, once you relax any existing assumptions, looking at the play Jitney is like looking into a mirror. You can see yourself (I hope) in the characters and relationships that make up the ensemble, though the glaze has long since lost its reflective power. And each participant is on a journey, literally as in a jitney ride, and figuratively in their own personal development, just as the figures in the painting were on a journey to Egypt. But who in the play is the angel glancing out into the audience?
Now, it’s not likely, given Wilson’s halted formal education, that he knew anything about this work by Leonardo Da Vinci or its repetition. Nor did he consciously plan the repetition of Jitney. These are mere coincidences. What is not a coincidence, in my second, slightly esoteric point, is the similarity between the two artists, the tendency to project and portray humanity in a classical and humanist way.
It is said of Da Vinci that, “a wish to get to the heart of nature and know the secrets was perhaps Leonardo da Vinci’s main impetus in everything he did; and such interest as he had in the painting might almost have been to set up rivals to nature, fusing all his knowledge of her into the creation of things super-natural.” https://www.leonardodavinci.net/the-virgin-of-the-rocks.jsp. That certainly sounds like August Wilson to me.
A quote by the turn of the century painter Kenyon Cox is pertinent here:
“The Classic Spirit is the disinterested search for perfection; it is the love of clearness and reasonableness and self-control; it is, above all, the love of permanence and of continuity. It asks of a work of art, not that it shall be novel or effective, but that it shall be fine and noble. It seeks not merely to express individuality or emotion but to express disciplined emotion and individuality restrained by law. It strives for the essential rather than the accidental, the eternal rather than the momentary. And it loves to steep itself in tradition. It would have each new work connect itself in the mind of him who sees it with all the noble and lovely works of the past, bringing them to his memory and making their beauty and charm part of the beauty and charm of the work before him. It does not deny originality and individuality – they are as welcome as inevitable. It does not consider tradition as immutable or set rigid bounds to invention. But it desires that each new presentation of truth and beauty shall show us the old truth and the old beauty, seen only from a different angle and colored by a different medium. It wishes to add link by link to the chain of tradition, but it does not wish to break the chain.“(Murray, Richard N. The American Renaissance. The Brooklyn Museum. 1979. p. 189)
My final point. We rush, perhaps, to compare August Wilson to other playwrights, to O’Neill, to Williams. We even call him the American Bard in homage to Shakespeare. But his focus on his 4B sources of inspiration, Bearden, Baraka, Borges, and the Blues, and his adoption of their styles, across genres, to his plays, makes him more of a Renaissance man that just a playwright. And as a Renaissance man, a more apt comparison is to other Renaissance men, like Da Vinci.
We can discuss over the course of the cycle whether Wilson was a classicist, a neo-classicist, or a modernist (or even a post modernist). I know I wear my feelings on my sleeve, as they say. No poker face here, much to my regret.
Some post-session notes.
No soliloquies in Jitney. Every word spoken is an exchange between two or more characters. No angel in the mix casting an inquisitive glace at the audience like in Virgin of the Rocks. We are on our own here and many of us are able to relate to those we see on the stage.
On Becker and Booster, my personal belief is that Booster’s adolescent acting up, including his dalliance with Susan McKnight leading to his incarceration, was all less a function of the trauma of seeing his dad made small by Mr. Rand the landlord in his formative years, and more a function of his rejection of the image and future Becker sought to consciously and subconsciously impose on him through out his youth. That sentence was too long, but you catch my drift.
The information that came out about the death penalty in Pennsylvania and the way Wilson wove it into Jitney was so interesting it sent me to the internet for more research. “In 1913, the state’s capital punishment statute was amended to bring executions under the administration of the state rather than individual counties, and also changed the method of execution to electrocution. Between 1915 and 1962, there were 350 executions in Pennsylvania, including two women. The last prisoner executed by means of the electric chair was Elmo Smith in 1962.” https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/state-and-federal-info/state-by-state/pennsylvania
One member noted that there are two veterans in the play, Youngblood (Darnell) and Doub. Youngblood served in Vietnam and Doub served in Korea. Only on one occasion do they “commiserate” regarding their common military experiences, early in Act 2, Scene 1. Also, no other play in the series has more than two military veterans.
Women very influentual to the play’s action never show up on stage to speak for themselves. Booster’s mother Coreen died of grief after he was given the death penalty and before his sentences was commuted to 20 years. Susan McKnight was Booster’s girlfriend at Pitt who cried rape when they were discovered and later was murdered by Booster. Cigar Annie, who was evicted, stands in the middle of the street raising her dress. Shealy’s wife, Rosie, put a curse on his future ability to have another woman in his life. Becker’s new wife is Lucille. Fielding has been separated from his wife for 22 years, but he knows she loves him. Philmore’s wife put him out, but she’s gonna beg him to come back, almost like the story of Wilson’s first wife.
We see Turnbo with his gun one time in Act 1. And we never see his gun again. That was a bit of a surprise.
I want to explore the comparison between Booster and Bigger Thomas in Richard Wright’s Native Son.
Shealy runs numbers and many drivers play. Turnbo and Youngblood play checkers. This game playing seems to be a recurring theme throughout the play. Also, along those lines, Booster hits the number just before he learns of his father’s passing, so he is in possession of some cash to perhaps help him fix up the place after he has taken over.