A Night Out or a Call to Action

photo courtesy of flickr/rwoan

About forty-five minutes into act one of “Jitney” at Court Theatre, the man sitting next to me fell asleep. He was a big guy, and, when his breathing relaxed and his eyes closed, our knees pressed together. He snored. Not loudly, but still.

Two women sat on the other side of me. Both wore pantsuits. They spoke to each other incessantly throughout the play. (“Wasn’t he in…?”; “This is just like Lear.”; “Get it? He said twenty-two years!”)

Midway through act two, a group of kids (teenagers, maybe older; maybe older than me) across the aisle to my right started shouting. The couple on stage, Rena and Youngblood, had just made up after a series of misunderstandings and concealments. The kids laughed and awwwed and yelled encouragement. When Rena leapt lustfully into Youngblood’s arms, one kid shouted: “That ain’t classy!” Everyone laughed.

How should we watch a black play?

“Jitney” is a play by a black author, acted by black actors, dreamed up before I was born, about a city I know next to nothing about. August Wilson’s name is familiar, but I don’t think I’ve seen any of the other plays in his Pittsburgh cycle: ten plays about the African-American experience, each set in a different decade of the 20th century.

I’ve lived more years in the 21st century than its predecessor. Did I have a layover in Pittsburgh once? Doesn’t matter. I’m half white, half Indian, but I’m light skinned and rarely get pulled over at airport security. Let’s call me white, more or less. I’ve never been to prison. Once, a cop stopped me when I was walking on the sidewalk; he asked if I needed directions. I say all this to clarify: I am not qualified to judge the authenticity, veracity, cultural, social, or political accuracy of “Jitney.”

“Jitney” is set in 1977 in a jitney station, a sort of cab depot for unlicensed drivers that’s apparently common in black communities. August Wilson uses nine characters to tell us the story of the station and its inhabitants. Amongst others, Wilson speaks through Becker, the jitney station chief, a strong and decent patriarch with an almost regal cadence. He speaks with drunken lucidity in the voice of Fielding, the station’s innocent, elderly fuck-up of a driver. He gossips in the voice of the driver Turnbo, who speaks quickly, at once accusatory and accused. And, occasionally, he preaches in the voice of Booster, Becker’s now middle-aged son, home after rotting in prison for a crime that shamed his mother and dishonored his father.

All of Wilson’s characters have different arcs in the play, varied joys and disappointments, mistakes and dreams deferred.  But those individual differences are dwarfed by their shared experience as blacks. Wilson never lets his audience forget that there is an entire African-American community offstage, getting squeezed by a racist city and its hired hands. He might have gained empathy from a pale-faced establishment by masking his characters, downplaying their specificity, or highlighting their universality.  He could have written voices that just happened to be black.

Instead, Wilson interrupts any mutual recognition: he forces the audience to remember that they’re part of a much larger, very troubled black community. Becker is called back to the old mill where he once worked. His son is a felon, without a job or future. City officials plan to shut down the station as part of “urban renewal.” The phone rings.

Throughout the play, conversations are interrupted by the phone. The talking stops and someone answers; they always say, “Car service.” In this way, Wilson prevents us from just thinking about the action on the stage; we have to think about a larger offstage world, full of people in need of a ride, waiting in front of the grocery store, too poor to own a car, in a community too black to have traditional cabs.

I was off stage, too. Center section, row E, seat 4. For the most part silent, watching the play, and, let me say after all that exegesis, enjoying myself. Maybe being entertained is enough.

But remember: I’m a student, a more-or-less white one, at the University of Chicago, an institution that has used some of the same city planning policies that menaced characters of “Jitney” and kept their community down.  In his 1998 book, Making the Second Ghetto, Arnold Hirsch shows how before and after World War II the University supported restrictive covenants and engaged in extensive urban planning in an attempt to keep blacks and other minorities out of Hyde Park. Regardless of the academics’ intentions, the communities remained just separate, never equal.

After the play, I went home. My apartment is in Hyde Park (roughly 30% black; per capita income $39,243; unemployment rate 6.9%) and, on the way there, I walked past private police cars and innumerable emergency blue lights that many see as protection from crime that may seep in from Woodlawn to the south (roughly 87% black; per capita income $18,928; unemployment rate 17.3%) and Washington Park to the west (roughly 97% black; per capita income $13,087; unemployment rate 23.2%).

At the end of act one, Becker casts out his son. He banishes him from the station and returns him to the streets. He tells him to fend for himself. He makes him the feared other, the one who can’t escape that strange American curse of blackness. He says, “You just another nigger on the street.”

I watched a black play: didn’t talk, didn’t yell, didn’t fall asleep, enjoyed myself, felt conflicted. Then I walked home. Is that enough?