It’s the fall of 1977 in the Hill District. The urban area just west of downtown Pittsburgh is predominantly African American, and in a time of de facto segregation, untraveled by run-of-the-mill taxis. Transportation options are limited, and unlicensed “jitney” cabs are as common there as legal yellow cabs are in white neighborhoods.
August Wilson’s Jitney—onstage at the Mark Taper Forum November 11 – December 29, 2019—is set in one such station, a place that represents not only a way to get around but a lifeline for 20th-century African American communities.
A few weeks before performances began, Dominic Taylor, Professor and Vice Chair of Graduate Studies at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, visited Center Theatre Group headquarters to speak with our staff about the momentous history behind Jitney, Wilson’s first full-length play and a show with astounding cultural relevance even 40 years after it was written.
“August Wilson’s question was: how do black people move?” said Taylor, who’s both a scholar of African American theatre and former Associate Artistic Director at Minnesota’s Penumbra Theatre (where Jitney originally premiered in 1982). “How does our interaction and collision with white America continue to work—how do we move up in the world, what do we do, and what’s our relationship to the past and present?”
Jitney specifically shows how “the government intrudes in private practices in African American communities,” said Taylor. Often, it’s gentrification veiled as urban renewal: The government “could take your home and business for the betterment of a community,” explained Taylor. Jitney also demonstrates how bureaucracy led to African Americans creating their own economic opportunities.
Taylor offered the example of Shealy, a bookie, who uses the jitney station’s the phone lines to run an under-the-table lottery during a time before state-sponsored Powerballs and Mega Millions. “Running numbers was an additional, economic community space,” said Taylor. “The numbers runner was a complex character in the world. Most people today think the lottery is a just a normal part of your life, but it didn’t exist in Pittsburgh at the time. But it was a business, a significant, real business.”
As was the jitney business. “If you were an African American man, you weren’t going to get a [taxi] license—[local and state governments] would either deny black men from getting them, or inflate the costs,” said Taylor. “So in 1970, you tell them you want a license for a car, and they say it’s going to be $250,000, you’re not going to do that. Jitneys were a business proposition, a source of pride and empowerment.”
Jitney stations, explained Taylor, became “cooperative economic spaces” where drivers shared real estate expenses, operated the phone lines, and used their own cars to take neighborhood residents from one place to another. In a political sense, they were also a response to the way “things were measured and monitored” by the government. Indeed, black Americans historically relied on jitneys for transportation in times of protest, including the yearlong 1955–1956 Montgomery Bus Boycotts. “Jitneys were pillars for the moment,” explained Taylor.
He also discussed the endurance of Wilson’s work in general and Jitney in particular. “There’s a reason we do August plays all the time,” Taylor said. “He gives us a lot of complexity with these people—so August really opens up the conversation of how to exist in the world.” Taylor explained that the ties among the characters of Jitney are especially representative of how black men manage oppression—particularly the broken relationship between Becker, the jitney station manager, and his son, who’s just been released from prison. Through a lens of black masculinity, Jitney also tackles issues like violence and redemption.
“This happens a lot in African American work—the question of what it is to be a man, how do you manifest this manhood, and what is the behavior of it,” Taylor said. Wilson explored this in the context of the father-son dynamic in Fences as well, Taylor noted. “Both Fences and Jitney question how one performs maleness in this patriarchal society we presently have—even when you’re dealing with a series of things that are placing you in an unpleasant position. But it’s an interesting thing to watch unfold—to see these people do themselves and live their lives.”
Wilson masterfully gave his characters “moments of humanity” throughout The American Century Cycle that have inspired writers for decades now. “Being an artist during August’s time, you realized everyone wanted to be like him. And now you have all these young playwrights trying to write plays that work together in the way The American Century Cycle did,” said Taylor. “But they want to do it because August did it—and he did something special with it. That’s herculean.”