Goodman Theatre

By Adam Langer

As August Wilson comes closer to completing his decade-by-decade theatrical exploration of the African-American experience, you can almost hear him breathe a great sigh of relief. In 1989–when Wilson’s 1930s play, The Piano Lesson, was premiering in Chicago–word had it that he intended to chronicle every culturally relevant decade from the 1850s on. Lately, though, the two-time Pulitzer winner has said that his cycle–which he began in 1981 with the 1920s play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom–will be complete once he’s written a play for every decade in the 20th century. For the play representing the 1970s he’s unearthed Jitney, which he wrote in 1979–before he’d even conceived of the cycle. He’ll be done once he completes three more: King Hedley the Second, about the 1980s, will premiere this fall at the Pittsburgh Public Theater, and two are as yet unwritten, one for the 1990s and the other set at the beginning of the century.

By revising and expanding Jitney rather than creating an entirely new work, Wilson may be inviting speculation that he’s hurrying to finish the cycle. But it’s fascinating to see a Wilson play written before he became one of the last great hopes for 20th-century American theater, before he became African-American drama’s most prominent spokesman, before his every play became burdened by speculation about its prizewinning potential, before he engaged in heated debates with New Republic drama critic Robert Brustein about affirmative action in the arts and with cultural critic Henry Louis Gates Jr. about the need for a separate black theater, back when August Wilson was as unfamiliar a name as Frederick August Kittel–the name he was given at birth.

Since 1981 Wilson has been on a run of success nearly unprecedented in American theater. And with the revised Jitney, the playwright is batting seven for seven. There isn’t a bad play in the bunch. Each has been given brilliant dialogue, rich atmosphere, compelling conflicts, and a profound philosophical and historical weight: Wilson’s record for consistency is surpassed only by dramatists like Brian Friel and Eugene O’Neill. At the same time, Wilson’s more recent work–especially the 1940s blues mystery Seven Guitars and Two Trains Running, his treatise on civil rights and the black power movement in the 60s–has been ever more self-conscious: there’s a sense that every line must resonate with the weight of history, that every character and even every object onstage must symbolize something larger.

Jitney is less self-conscious–though it’s probably not Wilson’s best play. That’s no great criticism: The Glass Menagerie wasn’t Tennessee Williams’s best, and The Price doesn’t take the honors for Arthur Miller. But if Jitney isn’t Wilson’s best work–for my money, that distinction belongs to the ghostly 1986 boardinghouse drama Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, set in 1911–it feels like his most complete, with a wonderful symmetry and perfect pacing. One never has the sense one gets from The Piano Lesson, for example, that Wilson is struggling to find a way to end it.

The setting and its denizens are quintessential Wilson: a semilegal taxi service in Pittsburgh’s Hill District on the verge of being closed down by the city for an urban renewal project in 1977. “They won’t be satisfied,” one character opines, “until they tear the whole goddamn neighborhood down.” Like the diner in Two Trains Running, Wilson’s jitney station allows for a fair amount of both hubbub and downtime so that the characters can hang out, pontificate, play checkers, and shoot the shit. They’re all strugglers, living not quite on the fringes but perilously near them. And like Hambone in Two Trains Running, who was promised a ham for doing an odd job and spent the rest of his life trying to collect it, Jitney’s characters all convey the sense that they’ve worked hard for less-than-equitable compensation. As one character says while eulogizing another, “The only thing I feel sorry about is he ain’t got out of life what he put in.”

Becker, the proprietor of the jitney station, is a hard worker and a noble man who’s played by the rules to get where he is and sometimes sacrificed his pride to support his family. Turnbo, an old-timer as dangerously meddlesome as Hamlet’s Polonius, is constantly at odds with the rather too obviously named Youngblood, a hot-tempered Vietnam vet working long hours to buy a house for his girlfriend, Rena, and their two-year-old son. Fielding is the loping alcoholic who hasn’t seen his wife in 20 years, and other characters from the neighborhood or the jitney station help pass the time, playing the numbers and discussing such topics as the changing urban landscape, black-white relations, and the relative merits of Sarah Vaughan and Lena Horne.

The play’s two main conflicts center around Becker–whether he’ll fight city hall to keep the jitney station open, and what he’ll do now that his son Booster has gotten out of jail after serving a 20-year sentence for murder. Booster had been an honors student in high school, with a full scholarship to the University of Pittsburgh and dreams of becoming either the next Muhammad Ali or the next Albert Einstein. All that promise came to a grisly end, however, when his white girlfriend, under pressure from her father in a scenario reminiscent of To Kill a Mockingbird, falsely accused him of rape. Booster, as he puts it, “did what he had to do”: he murdered her and was sentenced to die in the electric chair, a judgment eventually commuted to 20 years. Booster’s mother died shortly after hearing the death sentence, and Becker never went to the trial and never spoke to his son again.

Many of the play’s situations and exchanges are familiar, either from Wilson’s plays or other sources. The father-son tensions are echoed in Wilson’s Fences. The generational conflict between Turnbo and Youngblood brings to mind similar exchanges in The Piano Lesson and Two Trains Running. And Jitney shares with much of the rest of Wilson’s work a tendency toward rather unsatisfying female characters. Rena is only slightly better drawn than the women who never appear onstage: the white girl who cried rape because of her rich daddy; Booster’s long-suffering mother, who essentially starved herself to death after her son received his sentence; Fielding’s long-lost wife.

And the work has an overarching fault that reveals it’s an early effort: Wilson’s ready reliance on aphorisms and cliches. During Becker and Booster’s first meeting after 20 years, the father berates his son for having thrown his “life away like it don’t mean nothing” and for forgetting his lesson that “two wrongs don’t make a right.” For his part, Booster defends his indefensible act by claiming he had to preserve his self-respect. “When she told that lie, that made me feel small,” he says of the woman he murdered. “I did what was right for me.” The love story between Rena and Youngblood, formerly young sweethearts now dealing with the harsh realities of raising a child on limited incomes, has a similarly canned quality. “I changed, too,” Rena tells Youngblood. “We are both different people.”

It’s a credit to the rest of Wilson’s dialogue and to his usually well drawn characters that such scenes seem more archetypal than stereotypical. Resolving the conflicts between Booster and Becker and between Rena and Youngblood seems more inevitable than easy. Even when the play threatens to become inescapably trite, it’s never less than engaging. As in Wilson’s other work, we feel not that we’ve entered a theater but that we’ve plunged into a world, every last detail of which has been lovingly thought out.

Not surprisingly, since the Good-man has produced all seven plays in Wilson’s 20th-century cycle, this production of Jitney is just about perfect. From David Gallo’s beautifully detailed set to Marion McClinton’s dead-on direction to the stellar performances of the nine-member cast–Paul Butler as Becker reveals that he was born to perform Wilson every bit as much as Joe Mantegna was born to play Mamet–there isn’t a moment when one doesn’t feel completely immersed in Wilson’s deeply textured universe. A production this great of a play that, even though it’s flawed, is still well out in front of 99 percent of what’s been written this decade is well worth seeing. It also makes one anxious to discover what August Wilson will do for his 21st-century cycle.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/T. Charles Erickson.