Jitney at Pittsburgh Playwrights | Program Notes
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Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Jitney at Pittsburgh Playwrights

Posted By on Wed, Jun 2, 2010 at 12:20 PM

As of this writing, it's the final week to catch this splendid new production of the first-written installment of August Wilson's famed Century Cycle (or, as Pittsburghers like to call it, his "Pittsburgh Cycle"). 

"As of this writing" because the production's been so successful -- hard-scrapping little Playwrights' best-attended show ever -- that last week the troupe extended its planned run by one weekend, with shows now slated through Sun., June 6.

There's a thousand things to recommend this version of Wilson's play about a neighborhood car-service in the Hill District of the 1970s. One is how the set evokes the milieu: Playwrights' artistic director Mark Clayton Southers' sets are always good, true, especially for the troupe's annual staging of a Wilson play. But this one (which premiered in 1982) summons the '70s, when Southers grew up in that very neighborhood. And from the gloriously ragged couch that's the single set's centerpiece on out, Southers (who also directed) incarnates the clubhouse feel of a place where men duck in and out, waiting for the ring on the payphone in the corner that means someone's ready to pay for a ride somewhere. It even incorporates half an vintage beater car. (You kinda have to see it to believe it.)

Typical of Wilson, Jitney's written for an ensemble -- it's a great play about fathers and sons, and ultimately about community.

Still, most signally, Wilson's work -- unfortunately almost alone in contemporary American theater -- is from an African-American point of view. And one line especially sticks with me.

One character, Youngblood, is a Vietnam vet and the station's youngest driver. He's working two jobs, worried about money and running into obstacles to his plan to buy a house. But when he complains that the white man's institutions are against him, one of the older men stops him: The white man, he tells Youngblood, isn't against you; rather, he doesn't even know you're there.

Yoiks. I saw Jitney a couple weeks back, just after catching (at the nearby August Wilson Center, no less) a screening of the latest installment of East of Liberty, local filmmaker Chris Ivey's documentary about life in the East Liberty gentrification zone. The film's collage of voices included a black teen-ager who was dumbfounded that some organization somewhere kept naming Pittsburgh "America's Most Livable City."

The designation, suffice it to say, didn't comport with his experience in a rundown neighborhood. "Where does this most-livable-city shit come from?" the kid kept asking.

The exchange Wilson wrought in Jitney -- the white man doesn't even know you're there -- is one way to start formulating an answer. 

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