Who visits this blog?

I would love to know who the folks are who visit, how they are attached to or engaged with August Wilson plays, and how they found this blog.

Please leave a comment, or feel free to email me at rdmaxwell@protonmail.com.

Thank you for visiting!

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/

Week One of the August Wilson Century Series – Jitney

First, here is a link to the episode of Theater Talk that featured the Tony-award winning cast of Jitney in 2017:

This one is also good:

Here is a review from Memphis production last year.

It was interesting the way we focused our discussion on relationships, the peripheral relationship between Turnbo and Rena, the complex and layered relationship between Becker and Booster, and the evolving, dynamic, almost dance-like relationship between Rena and Youngblood. Relationships are such an essential, human thing, always transforming, always reflecting the environment that surrounds them, for good or ill.

We could have easily spent the whole class period on Becker and Booster’s father-son relationship, Becker’s deep disappointment in the mistakes that his son made and the consequences of those mistakes, the hopes that Becker placed in Boomer, and the energy he attempted to transfer to the future where Boomer might have more and better opportunities than he had. But I also think that at some level, Boomer’s “acting up” and the decisions he took that incarcerated him were a rejection of the pressure he felt from his father, and a not so subtle decision that he was going to live his own life, not the one Becker tried to transfer over to him. At the play’s end, Boomer starts toward the door to leave the jitney office, but the phone rings, and after a negligible hesitation, Boomer goes over and answers the phone, “Car service” as the light fades to black. I think that motion and action symbolize that there is hope for Boomer and there is hope for the jitney operation.

There is of course a lot to be said about Youngblood and Rena. One thing we didn’t discuss today was the tenderness of emotion Becker displayed in his conversation with Rena and Youngblood. Becker says towards the end of Act 2 Scene 1,

When you look around you’ll see that all you got is each other. There ain’t much more. Even when it look like there is…you come one day to find out there ain’t much more worth having.

Here we see that despite the gruff Becker displayed towards his own son, he never stopped developing as a father, never gave up on his own emotional development, and we are left wondering if one day he might have overcome his great disappointment and been able to show a similar level of affection for Boomer that he clearly has for Youngblood.  Alas, Becker’s potential for development is arrested on the factory floor so we will never know. As Vonnegut would say, “so it goes.”

We will see more of this relationship dynamic in Ma Rainey next week.

Characters

Jim Becker, the well-respected manager of the jitney station. In his 60s.
Doub, a driver, cautious and slow going, a Korean War veteran. One of few August Wilson characters who is a military veteran.
Fielding, a driver, an alcoholic, formerly a tailor who clothed Billy Eckstine and Count Basie.
Turnbo, a driver, notorious for being a gossip.
YoungBlood (Darnell Williams), a driver. Recently returned from Vietnam, working several jobs to provide for his family. In his late 20s. Another rare veteran.
Rena, YoungBlood’s girlfriend and the mother of his young son, Jesse.
Shealy, a flamboyent bookie who uses the jitney station as the basis of his numbers running operations.
Philmore, a local Hotel doorman and a frequent jitney passenger.
Booster (Clarence Becker), Becker’s son, who has just completed a 20-year prison sentence for murder. In his early 40s.

Postscript. 1977. The seventies were considered by many the post-Civil Rights era. The seventies witnessed a local push back against urban renewal and opposition to 50’s and 60’s redevelopment projects in America’s urban areas.

https://www.thoughtco.com/african-american-history-timeline-1970-1979-45445

p.s. There are the issues, peripheral and center stage, of urban renewal and prison reform, that bear discussion. Finally, the video of the revival Broadway production actors above discuss the idea that Wilson began writing Jitney, put it down to write Seven Guitars, then returned to Jitney later. Some characters and lines overlap…

Specifically in 1977:

Patricia Roberts Harris is the first African-American woman to hold a cabinet position when Jimmy Carter appoints her to oversee Housing and Urban Development.
Andrew Young is the first African-American to become a U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations.
For eight consecutive nights, the miniseries Roots is aired on national television. Not only is the miniseries the first to show viewers the impact of enslavement on American society, but it also achieved the highest ratings for a television program.

1st week links from Google Group.

http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/august-wilson-the-ground-on-which-i-stand-scenes-and-synposes-of-august-wilsons-10-play-cycle/3701/

http://old.seattletimes.com/html/obituaries/2002536239_august03.html

Bill Moyers interview on You Tube:

A You Tube playlist of excerpts from all the plays:

The Light in August Wilson – Suzi-Lori Parks interview

https://www.americantheatre.org/2005/11/01/the-light-in-august-wilson-a-career-a-century-a-lifetime/

This first link provides a speech August Wilson gave upon his return to Minnesota in 1991. The speech is not specific to any particular Wilson play, but provides rich background to character and plot development for all his plays.

–.-

1st meeting of August Wilson Century Series study group

March 5, 2018

1. Introduction
A. Who are we?
B. Why are we here?
1. Had seen several Wilson plays on stage over the years
2. Heard Denzel Washington plan to direct plays for screen

2. Class
A. Methodology
1. Collaborative close read
2. Learning subjectives vice objectives
3. The community is the curriculum
4. Required reading
5. Start thinking about recurrent themes across the plays
B. Study Group representative:
C. Feedback
1. Google Group (demonstration if time permits)
2. Blog page
3. Comments and suggestions

3. Intro comments on Jitney
A. 1st play. Series not yet contemplated, mixed reviews
B. Last of plays to make it to Broadway
C. 2017 Tony for best revival play

4. Begin the readings

5. Next week:
A. Post comments on Jitney
B. Read Ma Rainey for discussion

postscript.

Week 1 of the August Wilson study group is behind us! I thought 8-10 people would be an optimal size, but 18 signed up!  We started off with an introduction to the methodology, focusing on the collaborative close read, and two concepts I borrowed from #Rhizo15, learning subjectives (vs objectives) coupled to the idea that “the community is the curriculum.” Three quarters of the group members are retirees, one quarter are housewives and house husbands.

Here is what I posted to the Facebook ModPo Alumni Study Group (seen by 33 but liked by none):

Week 1 of my collaborative close read study group on August Wilson’s Century Series. The first play was “Jitney.”

1. First class went well. But we jammed together introductions and close read discussions in this first meeting and we ran out of time. I had hoped for 8 group members but we ended up with 18. 25% of the members are retired attorneys who know all about unpacking language!

2. Implementing “The Community is the Curriculum” from #rhizo15 was/is a big hit. There are two high school english teachers in the group who have taught Wilson’s plays. There is a college professor who actually knew and was acquainted with August Wilson.

3. Not everybody was able to access the Google Group where I had stashed a lot of background material. We hope to remedy that by 1) getting everybody a gmail account so they can access the group and 2} mirroring the group on a publicly accessible blog site here:

https://wordpress.com/view/raymonddmaxwell.com.

4. Versioning presented a slight hiccup. Members had three versions of the play, so page # references didn’t align and we lost a minute or two in each presentation trying to get everybody on the same page (literally!).

5. It was interesting the way the group immediately seized on drawing general principles from specific instances in the play through the close reading process. (The play is about a small black community in 1970’s Pittsburgh but the group decided that the principles were/are universally applicable).

6. Next week is “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” Will be posting notes here weekly and thinking about ways to move the course to a bigger virtual audience.

A big part of being a study group leader is conversation traffic direction!  That’s a good problem to have because so far everybody is enthusiastic about contributing to the conversation .

In preparing the coursework and background material, I find a big role to be curation, looking for the best, most impactful “stuff” online to share with the group. Still ironing out technology wrinkles, i.e., some couldn’t access the Google Group (that I am trying to use in place of forums in the Coursera platform) and some are not in the habit of checking their email.  

Week 2 is going to be fun! 

August Wilson considered himself a poet before he became a successful playwright and that comes through as we unpack the various sections of text (lines?, lyrics?).

Too much fun AND they reimburse us for parking!  

OK. More later.