February 10, 2000
An Evening with August Wilson
August Wilson's "Jitney," currently playing at the Mark Taper Forum, focuses on Pittsburgh's black Federal Hill District in 1977; the setting: a run down car hire office where half a dozen black men hang out, answer the telephone and take their turn picking up passengers.
Like most of Wilson's other plays -- "Two Trains Running," "The Piano Lesson," "Seven Guitars" -- the emphasis is upon character, with plot filling in almost as necessary background. There is a very real pleasure in watching and listening to the men who work for Becker, respected owner of the car hire service.
Wilson takes his time letting us know his gallery of young and old drivers. We become privy to the folklore and the assumptions that make up the day-to-day culture of black America: the relative merits of the singers Sarah Vaughn and Lena Horne; the follies of men who want both to hold onto their women at home and feel free to roam elsewhere; and the black take on whites in America. It is as though we have suddenly been offered the chance to eavesdrop on black gossip. It is all quite wonderful.
The plot -- actually, plots -- are necessary to the play's structure, but are almost incidental. They flesh out the characters for us. We see Youngblood, the returned veteran, struggling with marriage and parenthood, and the need to work several jobs in order to save enough money to buy a house; and Becker, the group's leader, rejecting a son just released from 20 years in prison for murdering the white girlfriend who betrayed him when he was 19-years-old.
These two stories are played out against the background chorus of the drivers we encounter in the car hire office. Wilson's voice is also present in the play. For his black audience, he spells out the message that they are responsible for their own fate in 1977 (unlike earlier days when all doors were closed to them). Whites don't think about you at all, he has one character tell the young Vietnam veteran. So don't go blaming them for holding you back.
For a white audience, Wilson almost deliberately sets out what looks to be our stereotypes. The irresponsible black man who cheats on his wife, in one instance; the no good, untrustworthy drunk, in another. But then it turns out that the first is faithful and the second is trustworthy, repaying the money he borrows for his whisky bottles. Indeed, Wilson goes out of his way to invest all his characters with middle-class virtues.
A Jewish critic cannot help but think back to earlier plays when Jews (and Irish and Italians as well) were similarly outside mainstream American culture. Clifford Odets' "Awake and Sing" and Elmer Rice's "Street Scene" come to mind. These were dramas that made ordinary men and women seem noble and near tragic figures.
The set, designed by David Gallo, is exceptional: Fluid, three-dimensional, open to the audience. The direction by Marion McClinton is first-rate; and the performances are all splendid, with particularly stellar acting by Anthony Chisholm as the alcoholic Fielding, and Paul Butler as Becker. The play runs through March 19. It's a lovely theatrical evening. Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m.; Sundays at 7:30; Saturday and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. (213) 628-2772.