Jitney (1980) by August Wilson
August Wilson (1945-2005), the son of a baker and a cleaning woman, became America’s pre-eminent playwright of the second half of the 20th century. He was born in Pittsburgh and raised in poverty. Describing his youth, he noted that his parents tried to shield him from knowledge of the even greater hardships that they had endured. He said, “My generation of blacks knew very little about the past of our parents. They shielded us from the indignities they suffered.” His education only began when he dropped out of school, disgusted by racism, and began reading on his own at the local library. He had aspirations to be a poet and sought publication while supporting himself with menial jobs. Wilson found his artistic voice, the voice of the black people with whom he had grown up in Pittsburgh, only when he moved to St. Paul, Minnesota in 1978 and found work at the regional theatre there. Jitney was his first play.
For twenty-five years Wilson engaged in a magnificent theatre project: telling the ten-part story of the African experience in America during the 20th century: one play set in each decade. The action of the whole cycle depicts the struggle towards birth of a genuine black consciousness. The final play of the cycle, Radio Golf, opened in 2005 at the Yale Rep. Wilson died six months later.
The plays are just superb. Wilson possessed gifts as a dramatist that are rarely combined in one person: he had a natural sense of the rhythms of the spoken word; he grasped the power of theatrical imagery, and he generated explosive action using the engine of plot. In Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, set during the 1920’s in Chicago, a lady blues singer tyrannizes her band while the group struggles to overcome exploitation in the early days of the recording industry. In Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, set in a Pittsburgh boarding house in 1911, an ex-sharecropper searches for the strands of an extended family separated during the first Great Migration. Wilson won the Pulitzer Prize for Fences, set again in Pittsburgh but during the 1950’s, a great hitter from the Negro Leagues, forced to quit baseball so that he can support his family, turns on his son when he enlists in the Army. Wilson won the Pulitzer once again for The Piano Lesson, set during the Depression of the 1930’s, a brother and sister argue about whether to sell their family’s most prized possession, a stand-up piano carved with the likenesses of their great-grand parents.
All of Wilson’s plays are written in the tradition of American psychological realism inherited from Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller, but his dramaturgy also incorporates unique aspects of African art. You can hear African drumming in the syncopation and improvisation of his characters’ spoken words. Uncanny moments occur in the plays when ancestral voices from the invisible realm impinge on the day-to-day experience of his characters. In all of his plays Wilson creates characters whose eloquence drives captivating monologues, and he devises plots which build again and again to disturbing and bloody finales.
Jitney was Wilson’s breakthrough as an artist. Written and set in the late 1970’s, Jitney’s action unfolds again in the Pittsburgh Hill District where Wilson grew up, in a gypsy cab garage on the day that the ‘jitney’ drivers discover that their business is being closed down to make way for Urban Renewal. Becker, the owner of the company, is tired. He says, “18 years of driving—you look up one morning and all you’ve got left is what you ain’t spent.” And the day that Becker finds out that the city has condemned his building is also the day his son, Booster, is coming home, having served twenty years in the state pen for murder. Faced with the loss of his job, Youngblood, a Vietnam vet, struggles to avoid the breakup of his relationship with Rena and threatens to veer off the straight and narrow. Pressured by racism and facing a slanted playing field in a changing economy, will the drivers turn on each other?
Do these middle class values serve the jitney drivers in Pittsburgh in 1978?
Becker’s faith in hard work, his strategy of accommodation with racism, and his resolution to follow the rules have been shaken to the core. How have the people in his neighborhood really survived to this point, and what will happen now that the city is moving them out? Has the role of middle class values changed in the years between 1963 and 1978? Has the time come for Becker to re-consider his judgment of Booster’s militancy?