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.
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.
I’m getting ready, after breakfast, to take the plunge into Jitney. My aim is to finish it and get my new notes up on the blog Monday. I also have reading to do for my other OLLI groups, which I will probably talk more about Thursday when we meet.
Speaking of Thursday, I have a new idea for our discussion that I’d like to try out. As you are reading, imagine you are in the play, as one of characters or as one that may not exist, except in your imagination. Suspend temporal, spatial, and identity assumptions and locate yourself in the Jitney station, in the play. Then, Thursday, let’s discuss our “immersion” experience. Who would you be? Who would you befriend? Who would you advise? Should be fun.
Syllabus – August Wilson American Century Cycle SG-685 – OLLI-AU. Spring 2021
Course Description The study group will read and discuss one August Wilson play each week for ten weeks, completing the Century Cycle of ten plays. Each group member will be required to read each play at home and be prepared to contribute to a group discussion on what they have read. The goal of the course will not be to exhaustively discuss each play. Instead, each group member (including the group leader) will select a brief passage to read aloud to the class, followed by a brief, collaborative close read and discussion by the group.
Instructional Methods The course uses collaborative group discussion and close reading of a passage selected by each group member.
Required Texts Group members will be required to procure all the plays listed below. The first five plays are linked in the syllabus, others will have to be purchased or borrowed from the library. The complete set of plays in hardback is available on Amazon for $100-$160. Each play can be found separately in paperback for $6-10 each.
Additional Suggested Texts Bigsby, Christopher. Editor. 2007. The Cambridge Companion to August Wilson. Bryer, Jackson and Mary C. Hartig. 2006. Conversations with August Wilson. Elkins, Marilyn. 1994. August Wilson, A Casebook. Herrington, Joan. 2004. I Ain’t Sorry for Nothing I Done. Nadal, Alan. 1994. May All Your Fences Have Gates: Essays on the drama of August Wilson. Nadal, Alan. 2010. Completing the Twentieth-Century Cycle. Nadal, Alan. 2018. The Theatre of August Wilson. Shannon, Sandra and Dana Williams. 2004. August Wilson and Black Aesthetics. Shannon, Sandra. 1995. The Dramatic Vision of August Wilson. Snodgrass, Mary Ellen. 2004. August Wilson: A Literary Companion. Temple, Riley Keene. 2017. Aunt Esters Children Redeemed.
Course Requirements Class participation. Each study group member will be expected to contribute to each week’s discussion.
The spring 2021 study group at OLLI-AU gets underway the first week of March, Thursday at 0945. This year we are returning to the original order of the plays, a nod to my inner archivist, the order in which the ten plays were written, beginning with Jitney. I’ve given this some thought, but not too much. At the beginning, back in 2017, we did the original order to see Wilson’s development as a playwright. I found that thinking to be pretty shallow; surely he was an expert at his craft when he cranked out the very first one, so just what was it we were tracking? In the next three sessions I thought it might make some sense to do the plays chronologically, by decade. But really, how much sense did that make? It’s not a history class after all, it’s a literature class. And decades are an arbitrary measure of the passage of time anyway. Nothing really special about it.
I dare say I am looking forward to it. Again. We will be meeting weekly by Zoom, like last time, but last time we actually met face to face for the first two meetings, before the lockdown broke our world. This time it will begin and end by Zoom and everybody knows what they are getting into. I have both Jitney and Ma Rainey texts available by pdf, and in addition this year I have the screenplay script of Ma Rainey to distribute if folks want to compare the stage to the film production. Ma Rainey will be fresh on everybody’s radar with the film and the upcoming Academy Awards. That will be fun.
My personal focus this year will be to look at August Wilson in the classical tradition, a perspective I think best showcases his immense talent. Yes, August Wilson as a dead white man, some may accuse, but that is exactly where I’d like to try to go. And of course Wilson as an archivist, a preserver of records and a purveyor of speech patterns of a special people on a special journey. Yep. Going there. The associated readings and the weekly playlists will groove closely. And with a liberal sprinkling of Deleuze and Quattari to spice things up.
OK. Stay tuned. I’ll be posting weekly until the actual journey begins in early March. Bon Voyage!
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.
We are three weeks and change away from the start of the 4th session of the August Wilson American Century Cycle study group in the spring semester of the OLLI program at American University. And another two weeks away from the biennial August Wilson Society Colloquium in Pittsburgh, March 12-15. It all runs together in terms of preparation work and I am so excited about it all!