African-American Shakespeare Company drives ‘Jitney’ onto the stage

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(L to R) Turnbo (ShawnJ West) argues with Becker (L. Peter Callender) and Youngblood (Edward Neville Ewell) in August Wilson’s “Jitney.” playing through April 16th at the Marines Memorial Theatre. (Photo by Lance Huntley)

“This was the very first play in which I listened to the dialogue as opposed to trying to force it into the mouths of characters, and once I got the characters talking, it was difficult to shut them up. “ –August Wilson

In the PBS documentary about the late great playwright August Wilson, he references three critics who believed that “Jitney” is his best play. But “Jitney” has not been a blockbuster film or a play with multiple Broadway runs. That honor belongs to “Fences.” His perceived best play also did not win any Pulitzer Prizes. That honor too belongs to “Fences,” and also “The Piano Lesson.”

All of this does not take away from the fact that “Jitney” has its own prestige and significance in the canon of the great works of the American theatre. For starters, it is the first play Wilson penned in his 10-play cycle focusing on 10 decades of African-American life. Set in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1977, the part of Pittsburgh where Wilson grew up, “Jitney” recently closed a critically acclaimed Broadway debut a few weeks ago, the final play in the cycle to see a Broadway stage.

Closer to home, San Francisco’s African American Shakespeare Company is bringing “Jitney” to the Marines Memorial Theatre for a three-week run, opening Saturday, April 1st.

In Wilson’s powerful play, due to the fact that cabs will not travel to the Hill for business, the community is forced to turn to jitneys – unlicensed cabs operated by the drivers who create the soundtrack of the play. The station is run by Becker, who has a strained relationship with his son, an ex-convict who returns to the station in an attempt to piece together their shattered relationship.

There are also the societal issues of the play, where the station is under a serious threat of a the city getting ready to take out their community and the building that is the lifeblood of their existence. Gentrification is now a very real threat to their lives.

L. Peter Callender understands why “Jitney” is such a revered piece in pantheon of Wilson’s greatest works. Callender, who is directing the play and portrays Becker, sees the parallels between Wilson and another iconic playwright.

“I always compare Wilson to William Shakespeare, who wrote 10 history plays, and so did Wilson,” said Callender. “One of my favorite Shakespeare plays is ‘Macbeth.’ It is one of his shortest plays, and ‘Jitney’ is one of August Wilson’s shortest plays.

“I love ‘Jitney’ for the same reasons – the characters have so many faults of their own. They are fragile, flawed and everyone in that play has a dream they are fighting for and fighting to maintain.”

While the characters in the play may not be speaking in meter the same way that Macbeth might, Callender is able to draw a direct parallel from Wilson to the greatest works of Shakespeare.

“It’s a special play because of poetry,” said Callender. “The men in the jitney station speak a language of the play that’s different than other plays, a language that’s tighter, in my opinion. These people are very real fighting for their existence.”

Edward Neville Ewell, who has worked with Callender multiple times and plays Vietnam veteran Youngblood, sees the play as more of a throwback – a play that is not heavy on spectacle but big on ideas, a text driven ensemble piece that delivers poignant truths for the Black men and one woman that make up the world of the jitney station.

“For me, Wilson was really able to bring the characters to the forefront in such a real and beautiful way,” said Ewell. “These are Black men supporting each other through the process. That’s what makes it so beautiful. They all come in and put in their little time cards, and they need each other and care for each other.

“The play doesn’t waste a word and is incredibly poetic, so well written. That’s why I think this play is one of Wilson’s best, if not the best.”

The strength and message of the play is certainly something that has incredible importance. Despite the flaws of the characters and their demons that haunt them at every turn, Callender believes that one of the great lessons of the plays is something he calls “stick-to-it-iveness.”

“These characters realize that power and strength comes in unity, and once they become unified, they become stronger, better friends, better citizens,” said Callender.

Despite the fact that people breaking apart is a real option in the face of gentrification, persevering as a community should always take precedence.

“The play interestingly mirrors gentrification that’s happening now,” said Ewell. “Black people are always sort of that bottom of the last people to hear about it, and are stuck picking up pieces of situations they have no control over. It’s a struggle that’s still very real and very relevant to this day.”

The play is loaded with symbolism and universal messages of friendship and camaraderie. And despite the fact that the play is set in the ‘70’s, the lessons of the story are just as powerful today as they have ever been.

“The play is about fathers and sons, young love, hopes and dreams. All these aspects make it an amazing piece of work,” said Callender. “The play tells us that the future is for us to hold onto and shape as our own without letting anyone shape it for us.”

WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO

The African-American Shakespeare Company presents “Jitney”
Written by August Wilson
Directed by L. Peter Callender
April 1st – 16th
The Marines Memorial Theatre
609 Sutter Street, Second Floor
San Francisco, CA 94102
Tickets range from $22.50 – $32.50
For tickets, call (415) 762-2071 or visit the official website.

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