Ride-share services should properly thank Black jitney drivers for creating their business model. This is according to Mark Clayton Southers, the founder and producing artistic director of the Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company.
“Uber and Lyft need to give some of these African-American jitney drivers a pension,” Southers says with a laugh. He spoke with Pittsburgh City Paper over the phone from Winston-Salem, N.C., where he was presenting his play Savior Samuel as part of the National Black Theatre Festival.
The people behind jitneys, a type of unlicensed cab service that, to this day, provides rides to underserved, predominantly Black neighborhoods, will become the subject of Pittsburgh Playwrights’ latest production of a classic August Wilson play. Part of Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle, Jitney, an award-winning show that originally premiered in 1982, is described as depicting “the lives of the drivers at a jitney cab station in the Hill District in 1977.”
While Pittsburgh Playwrights produced Jitney before in 2010, the latest production holds special meaning. The show, staging Fri, Aug. 12 through Sept 18 at 1727 Bedford Ave., will be performed outdoors in the back yard of Wilson’s childhood home, located in the very neighborhood where the story takes place. Now called the August Wilson House, the space was recently renovated and converted into an arts center.
Jitney will be co-presented with the August Wilson House, which will host its grand opening celebration during the play’s run.
Jitney marks Pittsburgh Playwrights’ latest foray into outdoor theater. The company also presented Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean in 2019, on a set at 1839 Wylie Ave., the actual address given in the play. Prior to that, the backyard of what is now the August Wilson House hosted Pittsburgh Playwrights’ productions of Seven Guitars in 2016 and King Hedley II in 2018.
The new location will serve as the stage for a returning cast, as three actors from the 2010 Pittsburgh Playwright production are set to come back.
Southers, who directs Jitney, says audiences will “get a chance to see a master work his craft” in Sala Udin, a local actor who also serves as the District 3 school board president. Southers adds that Udin originated the role of Becker, the jitney cab station manager, for Wilson. In total, Udin has played the role three times, including in the most recent production.
“It’s like my personal testimony with my father,” Udin says in a press statement. “We had a lot of conflict in our lives and this story reminds me of the importance of giving your father his props while you still have time because you may lose him. I never got the chance to tell my father that he was right and that I was stupid. This play is familiar territory because I still live in the Hill District where August and I grew up. We went to grade school together and I pass his birth home frequently.”
Besides Udin, the play will also feature Jonathan Berry as Booster, Chuck Timbers as Doub, Boykin Anthony as Philmore, EIexa Hanner as Rena, Roosevelt Watts as Shealy, Richard McBride as Youngblood, Mike Traylor as Fielding, and Les Howard as Turbo.
Southers says that, while the play revolves around Black jitney drivers, it holds some appeal for everyone.
“It talks about the Vietnam War briefly and talks about the Korean War conflict,” says Southers. “So it appeals to different people. And I think, a lot of times, especially within the African-American community, the patrons can identify with the different folks, like, ‘Oh, that’s my uncle, that's my grandfather, that's my cousin,’ you know? August Wilson's characters remind them of people they know.”
He says that, for the white community, Jitney “allows them to be the fly on the wall because they truly don't have that opportunity to sit and listen to African Americans converse,” adding that, unlike many often exaggerated depictions of the Black community in film and television, stories like Jitney are “more true to the way things actually are.”
Pittsburgh Playwrights has already started to invest more in the Hill District beyond working with the August Wilson House. As Southers explains, he and his wife bought the abandoned Madison Elementary School in the Upper Hill District, which has sat vacant for about 16 years. Southers says that, while they only recently closed on the sale, they were given access to the school in January and have been using it as a rehearsal space for both Jitney and Savior Samuel.
“The owners let us have the keys while we worked out the deal,” he says.
Southers adds that they plan on using the school as an alternative performance venue for Jitney in case of rain. Moving on, he says the school will serve as the home for Pittsburgh Playwrights, offer two theater spaces (the main stage and a black box), and help the company bring theater to the community in multiple capacities.
“We’re going to have rehearsal space, we’ll be teaching classes to learn how to do stuff behind the scenes, and acting classes, as well,” says Southers. “It's gonna be an arts hub.”
For now, Southers says, "We’re looking forward to bringing our all-time most-attended play back to the stage. Mr. Wilson’s Jitney is a favorite of most lovers of his work. We can’t wait to reunite with our supportive patrons at the historic August Wilson House!"
Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company presents Jitney. Fri., Aug. 12-Sept. 18. August Wilson House. 1727 Bedford Ave., Hill District. $42.50-50. pghplaywrights.org/jitney