Award-winning playwright August Wilson grew up in Pittsburgh, Pa., with childhood memories of welfare checks and the slum community. Many of these sounds and images are brought forth in his various plays, and Jitney is no exception.
Wilson was an exceptional student with a passion for literature; however the racism he endured led him to drop out of school at age 15. He was determined to teach himself and began with the “Negro” section of the library, as it was called before the Civil Rights Movement.
Wilson found little success in his poetry. However, Wilson gained acceptance at the 1982 National Playwrights Conference with his first play Jitney.
Temple students and faculty along with guest director Ozzie Jones bring Wilson’s 1970s jitney, or taxicab, office to life amidst a backdrop of black and white images of prominent blacks like Mohammed Ali, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr.
“Ozzie is a brilliant and innovative director. He brought so much professionalism to our rehearsals,” said sophomore theater major Thomas Coleman, who plays Doub.
The story takes place at Becker’s jitney service office in Pittsburgh’s shabby Hill District. The men are trapped in a life of gypsy cab-driving just hoping for a tomorrow. They deal with life’s daily struggles of making ends meet, maintaining relationships and making efforts toward a future.
“[The play] is about the importance of family, and anybody can relate to it because it encompasses everything; no matter what time period,” Coleman said.
The main plot revolves around the station’s owner, Becker, played by graduate student James Ijames, who is dealing with the city’s plans to tear down the building and his son’s return from the penitentiary.
The second major plot involves a young Vietnam veteran, Youngblood, played by Armando Batista, who is trying to make a future for is girlfriend, Rena, played by Tiffany Barrett-Davis, and their 2-year-old son. Struggling to build a family and life together, Youngblood faces issues not only with his girlfriend but also the station gossip, Turnbo, played by Steven Chew, Jr.
Scenes between Becker and son Booster, played by Donja Love, are filled with raw emotion, exhibiting not only the fine acting skills of both Ijames and Love, but also the strong theme of the elder generation’s struggles for their children. The first act ends with a poignant scene between father and son and their ravaged relationship.
Such emotions are underscored by the light designs of Temple graduate student, Shon Causer, who has worked on other Temple productions like Fuente Ovejuna and Pericles.
“Lighting is used to enhance the emotional subtext of the scene,” Causer said. “I tried to find established moments between Becker and Booster and emphasize what’s going on. Like, when Booster walks across the stage to his father I used a ghost-like lighting on Booster as he walked across the stage.”
Wilson’s other three characters add a contrasting humor to the drama unfolding in the station. José Rufino masterfully plays the role of drunken jitney driver, Fielding, delivering his lines with sure comic timing.
The cast got into character with many taxing rehearsals. They practiced their articulation to keep with the artistry of dialect found in Wilson’s writing.
The music and lighting played an integral part in the play’s production. The soulful sounds of the blues added a moving element to the already emotional scenes of the play, while certain images of the backdrop were emphasized by spotlight.
“The music and the lights are different than any of the other productions I’ve been in,” Ijames said. “The music underscores a great deal of the play. The lights are very specific. They bring a magical realism to the play.”
Playing the elderly Becker, Ijames turned to his grandmother and others who lived through the Civil Rights period. Watching films from the period and listening to a lot of the music like the Ohio Players and Donnie Hathaway, Ijames easily filled the role of Becker.
“[The play] is about redemption, making things right, and trying to pave a path for the younger generations. Wilson’s generation really fought for their children to lead a better existence. They were about maintaining dignity among oppression,” Ijames said.
“Jitney” is running at Temple’s Randall Theater (entrance is inside Annenberg Hall) from now until Saturday, March 26 at 8 p.m. and also 2 p.m. on Saturday. Tickets are available for $15 at the Liacouras Center Box Office, www.ticketmaster.com, or by phone at (215) 336-2000. Tickets are $12 for seniors, children and faculty. Tickets are free for all students with a GAF card, but must be picked up at the box office prior to the show.
Kaitlyn Dreyling can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.