Jitney — Where It All Began for August Wilson


From l, Kristy Johnson, Larry Bates, and Charlie Robinson in “Jitney” at The Pasadena Play-house.

August Wilson’s “Pittsburgh Cycle” began in 1979 when he wrote the first version of Jitney, which was his first full-length play. However, at the time, he never really had the intention to theatrically chronicle the African-American experience in the 20th century. It wasn’t until he had completed a play titled Fullerton Street, set in 1941, and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, set in 1927, that he realized he was on a path that would eventually define his work as a major theatrical accomplishment and garner him two Pulitzer Prizes for Drama (Fences in 1987 and The Piano Lesson in 1990) and numerous theatrical awards.

At the time Wilson fancied himself more of a poet, and after a small Pittsburgh theatre mounted a local production of Jitney in 1982 he put the play away in a drawer as he was focusing on the Broadway productions of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Fences, and Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.

But in 1996 Wilson decided to revisit Jitney and expand upon the relationships between Becker and his son Booster as well as the young couple Darnell/”Youngblood” and Rena. He tapped into his own relationship with his father, which was also frictional, and even added his own neighborhood nickname “Youngblood” to the storyline.

Wilson’s anger and frustration with the city of Pittsburghis also echoed in Jitney. The early and late ‘70s, the decade that Jitney is set, was a huge period of renewal in the Hill District with the residents and business owners constantly on edge and faced with the dangers of being uprooted or evicted as buildings were being torn down to gentrify the neighborhood.

From l, Montae Russell and James A. Watson, Jr. in August Wilson’s “Jitney.”

Wilson’s 33 years of living in the Hill District are also reflected deeply in his characters’ voices. As a young writer in his early twenties — who wasn’t quite sure what he wanted to write about yet — he would walk the neighborhood streets and spend time with the locals and business owners hearing their stories, listening to them bicker and pass on their own philosophies of life: what a man is, what his responsibilities and duties are. It is here where August Wilson discovered both his voice and the voice of his ten beautiful masterworks that are the “Pittsburgh Cycle.”

“August Wilson’s powerful voice and stories have left an undeniable footprint and impact on the American theatrical canon and on my personal journey as a director,” said Sheldon Epps, Artistic Director of The Pasadena Playhouse. “Jitney presents us with an amusing look at the old cronies of the Hill District inPittsburgh.  These colorful and fascinating men guided him to create characters that are distinct, while at the same time reflections of ourselves.”

Charlie Robinson (Night Court), starring as Becker, and Montae Russell (ER) as his son Booster lead the cast of nine performers at The Pasadena Playhouse. Jitney is performing at The Pasadena Playhouse from June 21–July 15. For tickets and information, visit www.PasadenaPlayhouse.org.

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