Opening night for August Wilson’s “Jitney” – directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson – is tonight, January 19th, at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre in New York City.
Set in the late 1970’s in the robust and colorfully textured world that is August Wilson’s Pittsburg, “Jitney” is a profound and compelling story about a group of Black men trying to scratch out a living as unlicensed jitney drivers. Threatened by impending gentrification, personal hardships and fractured relationships, Wilson’s first play is a stunning drama about the depths and complexities of Black masculinity.
Though it was the first play he ever wrote, “Jitney” is the last of Wilson’s plays to make it to Broadway. Ahead of its debut, I got the opportunity to chat with one of Wilson’s finest interpreters, Tony Award winner and director Ruben Santiago-Hudson as well as the majority of the cast. Anthony Chisholm (Fielding), Brandon Dirden (Booster), André Holland (Youngblood), Carra Patterson (Rena), Michael Potts (Turnbo), Ray Anthony Thomas (Philmore) andJohn Douglas Thompson (Becker) were all in attendance.
The cast and I spoke about August Wilson’s astounding legacy, the myths of Black masculinity, the late ‘70s as a particular time and space for Black people and Black women’s roles in Wilson’s plays.
Aramide Tinubu: Ruben, you’ve done so much with August Wilson’s cannon of work. How does “Jitney” fit in with your personal story?
Ruben Santiago-Hudson: That’s my life, that’s my history, that’s my culture, that’s who I am. We came from the same place. We’re from steel towns with Northern colored people talking about what they were running from and what they were running to. So we found the celebration in who we are as Black people. As Ossie Davis would call it, “The secret gladness of being Black.” This is who I am. I don’t have to do anything but just do my work and be honest, enjoy it and just say [August’s] words, but it’s my life, we had the same life.
AT: So what has this journey been like for you to finally get “Jitney” to Broadway?
RSH: It’s the reason I worked so hard; I promised him that if I had any strength in my body, I would do everything that I could. I never promised him that I could personally do it, but in my hubris, I did say, “I’ll get it done.” Ten years into the battle I thought it would never happen because all I got was rejected. I tried everything I could. I wrote letters; I directed every play. He wrote three roles for me. I did everything in my power to get to the place as a director that was worthy of this opportunity and as a producer and as a stalwart of his work, and all I did was get rejected. Then, Manhattan Theatre Club said, “Come on, let’s dance.” So, I’m humbled proud and appreciative.
AT: What do you think it was about “Jitney” that got August to the place where he found his voice?
RSH: This play was written like in ’79, and it didn’t really get completed until after “Seven Guitars” for a big reason. He cut an hour plus out of “Seven Guitars,” and ninety percent of that is in “Jitney.”
AT: Why do you think this is the only August Wilson play that has never made it to the Broadway stage until now despite the fact that it was his first play?
Ray Anthony Thomas: You know what, I think it’s just fate more than anything. I think it just happened. I don’t think there was any conspiracy or ill will against it.
André Holland: I think it’s about damn time. I first saw the play fifteen years ago in London, and after I saw it I said, “Why has this not been seen?!” Every six months or so I write my agent and say, “Hey, what about “Jitney?” I’d write letters to the National Theatre and say, “Hey! Why don’t ya’ll bring it over here?” So, I’m just grateful especially when I see people like Anthony Chisholm and Ruben. These are legends, so I’m grateful to be a part of it.
Michael Potts: I will say I don’t know why it has taken so long. I think people might have gotten caught up in the characters or the themes in some of the other plays. Like “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” for example, lots of people have heard of her; she’s a historical figure. The character in the “The Piano Lesson” is a huge thing in ”Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.” Those are bigger much larger ideas, and this is basically a story about the fraternity of Black men together and this particular jitney station.
Brandon Dirden: It’s kind of biblical isn’t it? The first shall be last. I happened to believe that there are no accidents. I’m not smart enough to understand all of the intricacies of why it took this long to get here, but I’m just grateful to be in the room. I’m grateful to be charged with the responsibility to help tell this story. We’re not the first company to tell this story, and we won’t be the last. We’re just the first on Broadway. Maybe 2016-2017 is the optimum time for the world to receive this play and this message about reconciliation, about love, about hope and about being concerned about what is happening in our communities. I can’t think of a more right time to do this play.
AT: I concur.
BD: I don’t know why it’s taken this long, but I’m glad that we’re here.
Anthony Chisholm: You can’t write stuff better than that. “Jitney” was submitted to Lloyd Richards who was the longest running dean at Yale University. Lloyd kind of discovered August, not to say that he wasn’t going to get discovered anyway. Lloyd rejected “Jitney, ” and it was only ninety minutes long, it was only a skeleton of what was to come. But August vowed when he got the rejection that he was going to write the greatest play that was ever written and that was “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.”
John Douglas Thompson: He wrote [“Jitney”] in the late ’70s, so the time frame of the play is when he was writing it. And, somehow the other plays took root if you will as far as being produced and worked on and being brought to Broadway. They were in that kind of a pipeline where somehow “Jitney” got forgotten. But, I think if you look at what the play has done in the regions, why people have such high expectations and why it has such high anticipation, it’s that they have been rooting for it all this time. It’s this play’s time and this play’s chance to complete the cycle, but also to start the cycle all over again.
AT: I always think about seeing Black male spaces depicted in popular culture, and the only time you ever really see that is around dominoes tables or barbershops, and so forth. The jitney station is just so different. This is a male dominated space with only one woman in the entire play. What do you think about that?
RSH: The world doesn’t provide that opportunity, America doesn’t provide that opportunity for Black men, so we find these spaces where we have the opportunity to speak loud and boisterous and to be brilliant to be angry, joyous, sexy, all of the things that we want to be. And, that’s at the barbershop, that’s at the pool hall and the jitney station. But, you notice our conversation is never the sort of conversation that certain politicians have said about women.
AT: That’s very true.
RSH: Our conversation is always about how we’re going to go forward, how we’re going to bring our community together. Important things. “What’s your responsibility?” “Who are you?” “What’s your integrity?” “How do we keep the community intact?” Those were the things that were important to August. We tell you who we are, we’re the custodians of our image, as opposed to it being given to you by someone else. We show you who we are. The strange thing is that people discover we are the same; we want the same things. That’s what they’ve always tried to keep from us as a people, making us feel like we’re so different. We’re different culturally; there is specificity. However, what we need and want to survive in life is exactly the same.
RAT: I feel like these guys consider themselves a family in a way. All of their fates hang in this place. Later in the story, they’re not sure what they are going to do, but they all want to do it together. I feel especially that this group of guys are more than friends.
AT: They’re family.
RAT: Yes, they are family.
AH: I just love this space and this story because there is this theme that comes up in the play a lot. It’s, “Stay out of my business, don’t get in my business!” To me “business” means vulnerability, a quiet or a sacred space. There is this thing I think within the Black community, particularity I think with men, there is this masculine idea that we don’t want to be seen in certain lights. We don’t want people to see the vulnerability. But, I think this jitney station provides a safe space for these men to interact with one another in a more honest way; men and women interact in a more honest way. So, I think that’s important, and I think we need it now more than ever. But what do you think about it?
AT: I think it’s beautiful. I just saw “Fences, ” and I chatted with Viola [Davis] and Denzel [Washington]. It was just amazing to jump forward in time twenty years in to see where Black people in Pittsburg have landed.
MP: I think it’s fantastic because I grew up with this. My dad, my grandfather, I remember growing up and going to these barbershops and male clubs and sitting with these men. I remember even as a kid such joy and such distinctiveness in how they communicated and how it was so different from how they might deal in a more culturally mixed world. But, the safe haven of the barbershop or the safe heaven of the jitney where they could actually be themselves, say who they are, and get angry and passionate and loud. They can enjoy things that on the outside might be seen as “aggressive” or “dangerous.” It was reveling in that and the expression of your unique self and having everyone respect and appreciate that. That’s extraordinary.
AT: So André, Youngblood is this amazing character. He exists in this world between the old school and the new, which is why he and Rena have this tension that runs throughout the play. How did you approach this role?
AH: We’re still in the early days of rehearsal, but that is one of the things that I am trying to understand about Youngblood. He is of this new generation. He’s of the new voice. I love him. I think he has just so much to say even about who we are as a people, regarding where we are today. He’s a guy who has gone to serve his country in Vietnam, and he comes back to work two and three jobs just trying to make it and piece it together, and he’s doing it without complaint. He’s just doing it. It’s people like that who I grew up around, hardworking, blue collar, go to work everyday Black people, one whose backs I think this country was built.
AT: Oh absolutely.
AH: So, I think it’s time that we hear from them, and I think that August Wilson illuminates them better than anyone I know.
AT: Brandon, your character Booster has returned home after being locked away in prison for twenty years. So he’s really walking into a world that is very different than the one he left behind. How did you feel about that, and how did you approach Booster as a result?
BD: You know what? It’s quite difficult to even imagine what the new world is gonna look like. I imagine that he wasn’t devoid of the news, so he probably kept himself as informed as he could. We know that Booster is a very intelligent man; well read and studious. But, you can’t prepare yourself for the way the world has changed in terms of communication. I think between the time he goes in, in 1957 and the time he gets out in 1977, the speed of which we moved is so much faster. Most importantly, I think Booster is trying to figure out where to start from, and that first place is with his father. How can he rebuild?
AT: Carra, you play Rena, the only woman in “Jitney.” What was that like for you to get that call for the role and what drew you to it?
Carra Patterson: Well, I’ve studied Rena since I was a teenager since I first decided to become an actor. It’s the one August Wilson… his writing has so many beautiful, Black, strong female characters but Rena is the one who I felt closest too. I think it’s because she’s one of the younger of his women and being a young teenager it was easy for me to relate to her experience. So, I felt very close to this character for years. When I heard “Jitney” was headed to Broadway, I was making as many phone calls as I could. I was just like I have to just try to be a part of this. There were a lot of women who were fighting to get their hands on it as well, but I was just like, I want to see how close I could get, it would just be an honor even to get close. So, I feel very blessed to be able to play this part and bring it to life on Broadway.
AT: Rena is able to break into this male space and connect with Youngblood. It’s so interesting that they want the same things even though they go about it differently. What do you think about the dynamic between them?
CP: Just on a very surface level when you have eight men in one room, all of that masculine energy bouncing off of that space, it changes when she enters just because of the simple fact that she is female. But also to me, Rena is the one who has it the most together
AT: (Laughing) Yes, she really does.
CP: That’s just life, and I think a lot of women will be able to relate to that, we’re always just a couple of steps ahead of our men, typically (Laughing). It can take them awhile to get on the same page. That’s a very human thing, and that’s what I love about August Wilson. He just cuts right to the heart of it for the men and the women, and I think he represents a lot of dynamics in Black relationships.
AT: So Michael, you play Turnbo, the jitney driver who is in everyone’s business.
MP: Yes, he’s kind of like the town newspaper. It seems he knows everything that is going on in the neighborhood and he is free about sharing the information with everyone that hasn’t heard.
AT: What I found that was so striking about him was the tension between him and Youngblood. It really represented this shift in thinking across the generations. Did you see that represented as well?
MP: Yeah, Youngblood is recently back from Vietnam, so there is at least a twenty-year difference there in their ages. But I think that Turnbo looks at him as what he’s trying to hold on to and recapture in terms of his youth. There is a bit of a friendly rivalry.
AT: John, Becker is sort of the center of this universe, he’s the one that has held this group of men together for years, but he’s beginning to bend and fracture a bit. How did you approach that?
JDT: Well, I’m certainly in the midst of thinking about the things you are talking about especially concerning Becker. It feels like there’s some sort of existential crisis that he’s going through. So, I haven’t quite figured out how I am going to manifest that, but intellectually I understand that there are things going on in his life. Perhaps it’s the fact that his son is coming home whom he hasn’t seen or spoken to in twenty years. The fact that that there is urban renewal going around in the community and they are threatening to close the jitney down, and he’s responsible for all of these other drivers who are working with him and working for him. So there is lots of stuff on his mind, and I think there are other issues; religious issues too. He’s tethered to Christianity, but somewhat losing his faith in it. So, I think there is a perfect storm of events that are in the man’s life that are removing him further and further from himself.
AT: Why is it so important for “Jitney” to finally be on Broadway?
RAT: I think it completes [August’s] cycle as far as his shows getting to Broadway, and I think if nothing else, that is the most important thing. So it’s very poignant.
AT: I agree! So have you read all of the plays in August’s Twentieth Century Cycle?
RAT: I have, yeah. I’ve done six of the plays. A couple of the guys here have done all ten, and that’s kind of my goal. The beauty of August is starting as a kid; I grew up with him; kind of like Shakespeare.
MP: I have read nearly everything; I haven’t read “Radio Golf” and “King Hedley II” yet. It’s interesting because my experience with August Wilson began at drama school. The first year I was at Yale, Lloyd Richards was still there, and I was there during the time when he was working on “Two Trains Running” and “ The Piano Lesson” was on Broadway at that time. “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” was to come, so I was around in that orbit. I’ve been a spectator.
BD: I’m very familiar with the cannon; I started performing his plays when I was twelve.
AT: Wow! What was your first play?
BD: It was “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.” I played the little boy Ruben, and it was directed by August’s close friend Claude Purdy; the gentleman who encouraged him to start writing plays. So that was my beginning. This is my sixth August Wilson play and perhaps my eighth or ninth production because I’ve done a couple of them twice. I’m looking to complete the cycle.
AC: I’ve done seven of the plays, over fifty-eight productions.
JDT: I’ve seen all of the plays. I was in “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” in 2012. So, that’s kind of my experience with August Wilson’s works, so I am aware of all of them. I’m just happy that this jewel of a play is finally getting to Broadway, it’s been long overdue.
RAT: I grew up during the time of “Jitney” and this is the fifth time I’ve done the play so I‘m very familiar. I’m really excited about it because it’s going to be history.
AT: Carra, which other August Wilson plays would you like to do, or have you done other plays from his cycle?
CP: This is my first August Wilson.
AT: Wow! That is amazing!
CP: I’ve studied Rena a lot, I’ve only ever done it in acting classes where you only get to do one scene from it and get notes, so I’ve never done a full August Wilson production. I’m, nervous but, I’m surrounded by such awesome actors. Some of them have done all ten, so I feel like I’m in good hands.
AT: For me, it’s just so wonderful to see our stories told, especially in all of the different time periods.
AT: I think another thing that struck me was every time Youngblood spoke with all of the other men because he’s exists in a different world then they were able to. He’s able to have different types of opportunities.
RAT: Yes, for the older gentlemen their world has already been sort of chosen for them.
AT: “Jitney” is set at a particular moment for Black people in the ‘70s. Rena is able to have options that Rose from “Fences” or the other women from earlier moments in the cycle do not. What does that mean to you, Carra?
CP: I think August Wilson wrote “Jitney” first because it was probably closest to him at the time, even thought it fell later in the cycle. I think it’s also appropriate that it is being debuted last on Broadway. But, I do think Rena does represent that shift that was taking place in that era. Women were working more; it was more of a team effort that we both do what it takes to keep the home running. It’s not just he just goes out and brings home the bacon. It’s not like Rose and her set up with Troy in “Fences.” It’s this new way of living and being. Rena is working and going to school, and they both need to work together. She wants to be a part of them building their life and buying a home together. But, [Youngblood] wants it to be the old school way. I think it’s this new way and society is still shifting and changing as far as figuring out what our roles are in the home. So, I think it’s very timely…
AT: I agree.
RSH: What people don’t understand about August Wilson’s women in the strength that they have. They are the glue that keeps the community together, and if you play it or see it any other way, then you weren’t raised by a strong Black woman. I was raised by a strong Black woman, so I always knew that. Anytime I direct his plays my woman are strong. It’s very important to me to see Carra as Rena turning the play. In every August Wilson play, women will turn the play. The woman is going to be the center of the world, and I love that.
AT: What was the most pivotal moment in the play for you?
CP: Personally, it was the ending. The final moment and I don’t want to give it away, but it’s that moment. The whole play is beautiful, and you don’t really know what’s coming. But the final moment in the play, even just hearing it read; it always takes my breath away. That’s most profound to me.
RSH: It depends on which day of the week it is for me. Some days it’s Becker and Booster, the father and son. Some days it’s the young lover and his woman and him trying to do the right thing. Sometimes, it’s the strength in the woman saying, “If you can’t do what I need, then we can’t make it.”
JDT: I think the moment where Becker and his son finally have the conversation that they have wanted to have for twenty years. If you think about that, it’s a very deep thing to decide not to talk to and see someone for that long. And, it wasn’t as if Booster is too far away from Becker to get to, he was three miles away so he could have and he didn’t.
BD: It is hard for me to even to get through the end of act one without losing it. It is so heart-wrenching to communicate or even witnessing Booster and his struggle with trying to reconnect with his father. It’s really heart wrenching to know how much love still exists between the two men. It’s impacted me personally in a way that many other plays have not.
AT: Exactly, you never see these stories about Black men which is why “Moonlight” this year is also such an important film.
BD: That’s what I love about August Wilson, He isn’t afraid to tell the whole truth about Black men. Yes, we have a lot of bravado, style, and masculinity but we also have a need to be loved. And not just by a woman, we have a need to be loved by our brothers, our fathers, and our sons. It’s a very vulnerable part that I don’t think an equable amount of writers have explored. I’m not going to say August was the first one to explore that, nor is he the last. But, what he does in all of his plays is to give us a true sense of the complete interworkings of a Black man in this country. A Black man who has hopes and dreams, but who feels oppressed because of the world around him. But you still see him fighting. You see it all. It’s just a real joy finally to speak the words of a writer who gets me, and who gets my daily walk in this country, I’m not just one thing.
AT: I think it’s so interesting that August started with this particular play. Do you have any opinions about why you think he did?
RAT: I don’t. I do think, and I could be wrong, that he started with the scene of the father and son and he took it from there.
AT: He really stretched it out.
RAT: Yea. I feel that that is where it started. My understanding is that he took some lines from “Seven Guitars“ and a few things from other plays.
AT: And it’s so interesting that all of these characters across the cycles kind of touch.
RAT: Yeah, they do. There are a couple of characters that are mentioned in this play that are in other plays.
AT: Looking at the cycle as a whole, what do you see as the through line?
JDT: I don’t think there is any American literature about a group of people that chronicles their journey in the United States. We don’t have a writer who has done it. We have writers who have attempted it. You have someone like [Eugene] O’Neill who said I’m going to create a cycle of plays about Irish Americans, but even with O’Neill, some of those plays got lost and burned. He wasn’t able to complete that, so August Wilson has the idea of doing that, and he completed it. It’s monumental. We don’t have another writer, probably in the world to accomplish that. So, there is a certain amount of reverence to give to that accomplishment in its totality. I don’t fully even understand the largeness and the completeness of it because it’s so profound. So in that sense, I feel like I’m a part of history and I’ll never forget this. Words don’t do so it justice.
AT: What would you say to August Wilson today, if you could?
MP: Thank you. Literally, I would say thank you for celebrating these men in particular and our experience that no one really knows about or understands. When you write fully realized complex beings on stage, you begin to realize the universality of the experience, that we aren’t so odd or whatever the stereotypes are. There are so many misconceptions about who we are and how we are still, to this day. August wrote about it, and it’s extraordinary.
AH: I just want to say that I appreciate Shadow and Act so much for covering this, thanks so much for putting us out there.
AT: Thank you all so very much it was wonderful chatting with you.
August Wilson’s “Jitney,” which began previews Wednesday, December 28th, officially opens tonight, January 19th, at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre in New York City.
Watch Ruben Santiago-Hudson preview the play in the video below, courtesy of the Manhattan Theatre Club:
Aramide A Tinubu has her Master’s in Film Studies from Columbia University. She wrote her thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a Black cinephile, bookworm, blogger, and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can read her blog at: www.chocolategirlinthecity.com or tweet her @midnightrami