JITNEY Fever: How One Play Secured August Wilson's Legacy While Redefining Race and Success on Broadway
This season welcomed the very first Broadway production of the August Wilson drama, Jitney. Based on the real-life cab services of the 1970's which would service clients of color when regular taxi cabs would not, the story examines the relationships of the community in and around a jitney station in Pittsburgh's Hill District. Being the last play of Wilson's American Century Cycle to reach the Main Stem, the production adds the final jewel to the crown of August Wilson's sterling Broadway legacy.
As a matter of course for August Wilson's works, the play examines very particular facets of the black experience in America. From the estrangement of a father and son struggling to reclaim their relationship following a prison sentence to the romantic dynamic between a young couple trying to make their way in the world, the play examines the final days of a community whose streets have begun to reckon with the effects of gentrification.
Though cultural specifics are at the heart of the play's action, as with all of Wilson's works, the text also employs a thematic universality which made Jitney an audience favorite long before its smash run on Broadway this season. The play's director, longtime August Wilson gatekeeper, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, points to the language of August Wilson as an entry point to the themes of the story for its audiences.
"The language draws you into this psalm that August has written. It's a psalm that's very powerful. It's something that your brain and your heart immediately opens up. You find these human beings who are stocked full of the things that make humanity. They're stocked full of love, jealousy, joy, pathos, laughter. These human qualities reign supreme over the actors."
Longtime August Wilson actor Anthony Chisholm, who plays the role of alcoholic jitney driver, Fielding, has always believed in the show's capacity for success and the mass appeal of this deeply human story.
"I call it Jitney fever. It's a global play that people can relate to all over the world. That has been the reaction since the beginning. The people want Jitney."
Though the play has enjoyed years of success in smaller houses around the globe, the Broadway production of Jitney is a culmination of years of dedicated persistence for all involved, particularly for its director whose journey with this piece began with a very personal promise to its author.
"Two weeks before August died. he called me and asked me to do a play, How i Learned What i Learned. In that conversation I told him i would definitely do that but i also wanted to make sure that his final play, JItney, had a run on Broadway and he said to me, "Do it." I said, "I promise you. with all the strength i have in my body, i will work hard to make that happen for you." And it took eleven years to achieve what i said to him in that phone call."
Upon examination, the Jitney experience seems to be one that lies in deeply personal connections. The intimate ties which bind director to author and audiences to its subject matter extend to each and every crevice of the play, including the actor's personal relationship to the material. Mr. Chisholm, one of the foremost August Wilson actors, revealed his own historical ties to his character, Fielding, who expounds on a backstory which reveals a previous life working as a tailor for famous musicians, a slice of history which was lifted out of the life of the actor's own father.
"My father was a tailor and an alcoholic. He graduated college in the '30s during the Depression when there were no jobs, so he wound up working on the Amtrak railroad and, there, began making clothes for traveling celebrity musicians. He earned a reputation, and opened a tailor shop." Mr. Chisholm notes. "August had planned to make Fielding a butcher, but, after I told him that story, he said, 'Can I use it?' I said, 'Yeah, man, do whatever you want.' For about a week after, he told me, 'I'm working on something,' and then one day he handed me the pages."
For actress Carra Patterson, who plays the show's sole female character, Rena, the project also held some personal elements from her own history.
"For me, this role is very personal because my mother was a single parent. She was sixteen when she had me. Rena's conversations with Youngblood remind me of my mother and father working together to co-parent. Rena and Youngblood's relationship is successful because it seems like they could just be arguing at first but they really hear each other. That's the beauty of August Wilson, he paints both perspectives so beautifully."
Toward the end of the run, the show received some special visitors when former First Lady Michelle Obama and her daughter, Malia, attended the show. Visiting backstage at intermission, Mrs. Obama revealed her own personal ties to the story, noting that she had an uncle who, due to illiteracy, worked as a jitney driver as his only means of support.
In juxtaposing the history of black Americans, particularly during a period where black passengers were denied use of licensed taxi services, with the visit of an iconic woman of color - particularly one with such close ties to the show's history - one could point to a certain degree of progress for Americans of color. However, the disparities between the show's time period and the present day are not as evident as one might hope.
Carra Patterson notes, "That's the bittersweet element of this story. There has been some progress but the similarities between 2017 and 1977 are far too great, in my opinion. That's why I felt like it was an honor to tell this story for Mrs. Obama. She understands what it's like to be a black woman in America and to have to fight through every ceiling shes had to break through."
Santiago says of the visit, "She is a person who has brought so much to this country, not just in the things she's done for us as human beings, but the dignity she has shown by her example. To have her think it was important enough to bring her daughter was like the icing on the cake for us. it said to us that we are more than worthy of the accolades that we've received and the way the city has taken us in because the person we have the highest esteem for has taken the time to be with us."
In excavating the deeply personal experience the play holds for its team, audience members, and cultural icons alike, the question arises of why such a well-loved and well-received work faced so many barriers on its road to Broadway.
Pointing to the ceilings still facing many artists of color within the Broadway industry, Santiago says, "I would be remiss if i didn't acknowledge that there hasn't been some progress, but I also must be truthful in saying we have a long way to go. I like to be hopeful. I like to know that Broadway is always going to be include us but there is a history that prevails. In the history of Broadway there have never been two black dramas on Broadway at the same time, for any significant amount of time. There are two black writers on Broadway this season, and now we're gone, so there's one. It's back to status quo. it doesn't reflect our percentage in this industry, in this history and in this culture. Until we're in the position to be the power brokers of our own theaters and our own decision making, we're going to always be asking for permission. and there's no reason August Wilson should be asking permission to be on Broadway."
And when it comes to the question of black success on Broadway stages, the industry should look no further than in the raucous success of Jitney. Noting a fallacy within the industry that a black drama must employ a Hollywood star in order to be successful, Santiago explains, "In my time, I've seen them bring in plays from other places with unrecognizable stars, but I think we're held to a different standard. They feel that black plays need a Denzel [Washington] or Sam [Jackson]. I didn't have Denzel or Sam. So everyone was immediately closed to my discussion when I said that August Wilson is the star. But all you have to do is look at the numbers, and the percentage of audience of color on Broadway without a major star, it's astounding. We were doing thirty or thirty-five percent where on average that number is around five percent. That's a whole new audience we're cultivating. We have to bring new money, a new exciting audience into Broadway as well, and that was the audience that was coming to see Jitney."
Outside of its emotional and fiscal success with audiences, the magic of Jitney also seems to extend into one of foremost issues facing our modern society: unity in a moment of deep social and political division. In its ability to boil the human experience down to raw emotion and allow cultural differences to fall away, Jitney has also proven to be a communal experience for all who entered its auditorium.
Santiago notes, "I think we want to come together and we want to find arenas where we can all come together and laugh together. We want to come together in a society that's becoming very divisive. We want to find these opportunities. It doesn't matter what gender, race, religion, or socioeconomic background you come from, Jitney provided that event to bring us together where we can laugh and find some discourse in our differences."
For a play by one of the most revered playwrights of the twentieth century, which has enjoyed such a rich and successful life since its premiere and throughout its Broadway run, the briefness of Jitney's time on the most famous stage in the world skews toward the tragic. And while the final piece of the August Wilson Broadway legacy is secure at last, the Broadway success of Jitney tells its own story. In challenging notions of race, expectations of success, pre-conceived demographic assumptions, and the need to make Broadway more broad in its storytelling, Jitney has secured a legacy all its own.