Fine Arts - Laetitia Haddad
August Wilson’s Jitney: An Ever-Relevant Cultural Critique
These final words escaped into the air as the stage lights fell into a deep, contemplative violet. At this moment, the audience knew that Jitney had done what all plays aspire to do. It had stood the test of time, triumphantly depicting the socioeconomic struggles of Pittsburgh’s African-American community against the looming backdrop of growing gentrification in the District.
On September 19, Arena Stage premiered one of August Wilson’s “Century Cycle” masterpieces, Jitney, directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson. Written in 1979 and set in 1977, this play illuminates the daily lives of nine characters as they struggle to keep their jitney operational. A jitney station is a gypsy cab service, one that is run illegally to serve patrons in the surrounding neighborhood. Though comprised of peeling wallpaper and mismatched linoleum tiles, the jitney on stage stood as a site of defiance, its ragged couches symbols of time-battered strength.
And yet, the true sense of rebellion stemmed from the actors themselves. Raw and real, their mannerisms and dialects were nonconformist. Within each scene, they highlighted the jubilance, anger, frustration, and yearning of their lives.
Wilson’s screenplay is compelling because it focuses on portraying larger issues in the context of relationships and language. Perhaps, the most invigorating moments on stage occurred in conversation between characters. Setting the precedent for the rest of the play, the opening scene depicts Youngblood (Amari Cheatom) and Turnbo (Ray Anthony Thomas) in a heated game of checkers. Their animated tone and jumpy body language is accentuated by rich guitar chords.
Music is an integral component of this play, too. At the climax of the play, Booster (Francois Battiste) finds out that his father has died suddenly. The expanse of emotion he feels in this moment are too vast, and so expressive jazz maneuvers the scene into an eventual black out.
As the plot progresses, the audience learns of impending plans of gentrification: the city of Pittsburgh wants to tear down the jitney and build houses on the block instead. While torrents of infighting and various disagreements thrash the characters, gentrification is something that scares them all. It is representative of their city changing without them, and it is frightening.
Within D.C., gentrification is a controversial topic. While it can provide economic opportunities and new infrastructure, D.C. sees low income residents being removed from their homes at the highest rate nationwide. The Washington Post recently reported on the effects of rapid gentrification on resident Santhera Price, a vetran of NW who resided on 13th Street for 40 years. As buildings around her began to get renovated, and became worth much more than they previously did, Price could no longer afford rent in her apartment. All over D.C., neighborhoods that were previously predominantly black have become hotspots for developers, now catering to affluent white communities.
August Wilson wrote ten plays as a part of his “Century Cycle”, each set in a different decade of the 20th Century. Wilson’s works focused on the African American community within the context of each of these time periods, and provided insight on the struggles they faced. In Jitney, the audience witnessed the power of unity overcome the overbearing divisiveness of gentrification. And now, as we see issues from the 70’s echo forward into the present day, we are compelled to ask: by what means can we solve this problem?