Each character has a story, and those stories play out in Jitney, August Wilson’s gypsy cab station that serves Pittsburgh’s Hill District when others won’t.
The district was Wilson’s boyhood home, the setting of the 10 plays in his Pittsburgh Cycle. Jitney is number eight in that series and second in UpStage Theatre’s plan to perform all 10 in Baton Rouge. The theater company began this quest by staging Wilson’s Radio Golf two years ago.
“And now we’re getting back to it,” Ava Brewster-Turner said.
She’s UpStage’s founder and artistic director, as well as director of this production.
“We’re not doing them in order, but we plan to do them all,” she said.
Jitney will open on Friday, May 3 and run for four performances. Wilson wrote it in 1979 and set it in 1977. The Allegheny Repertory Theatre in Pittsburgh first introduced the gypsy cab station, terminology used for an unlicensed taxi service, to audiences in 1982.
It’s said that Wilson brought his mother to the premiere by way of jitney, or taxi.
After a rewrite and several other productions, Jitney finally made it to New York with the off-Broadway Second State Theatre production that opened in April 2000. It was the only Wilson play in the Pittsburgh Cycle that never made it to Broadway.
Still, Jitney has been produced not only in regional theater throughout the United States but on London’s West Side. Now Baton Rouge area audiences will have a chance to see the stories in the cab service unfold on UpStage’s Wooddale Boulevard stage.
“I read Jitney a few years ago, and I saw an excerpt of it in New York,” Turner said. “It was one of those times where I said, ‘We’ve got to do this.’”
The play is the second in UpStage’s 2013 season.
“And it’s a perfect fit for our season’s theme, ‘Shaping Images of Ourselves,’ because each of these men has a story, and each of those stories are developed in that station,” Turner said.
Still, all the main stories seem to be woven within two plot lines. The first is that of Darnell, known as Youngblood. He’s a Vietnam vet with a girlfriend named Rena. The couple has a 3-year-old son named Jessie.
Rena suspects Darnell of cheating on her. Becker, the cab service owner, reprimands Darnell for his attitude.
But there’s something about Darnell that Rena, Becker and the audience doesn’t know, something that will surprise everyone on stage and off. But that surprise can be revealed only at UpStage.
Meanwhile, there’s the second plot, the story of Becker and his incarcerated son Booster. Actually, this is the main plot, and it reveals not only Becker’s struggle with his son’s imprisonment, but the way he compensates for it.
“His son’s in jail, and he sees himself as a father figure to those who work for him, especially Darnell, who they call Youngblood,” Cedric Clarke Jr. said.
Clark plays Becker in this production, his third UpStage appearance. He’s a California native who majored in theater at Grambling University. He decided to leave school for acting opportunities in Baton Rouge.
“I’ll eventually go back to California and finish school,” he said.
For now, he’s a young guy stepping into the mindset of an older 60-something.
“Becker reminds me of my father,” Clarke said. “He also reminds me of some of my uncles. I looked to them when I was preparing for this character.”
Becker opened the cab station after working more than 20 years at a mill. His hope was to pass the business down to his son, but Booster was convicted of murder and sentenced to death.
“Booster’s sentence was changed, but his mother died before that happened,” Clarke said.
And Becker blames Booster for her death.
“Now Booster’s getting out of jail, and later in the show, you see the exchange between Becker and Booster,” Clarke said. “It’s a different side of Becker, and as he explains, you understand why he did the things he did — why he had to do the things he did as a parent and for his son. These are things we don’t always understand as children, and it made me understand why my dad has done some of the things he’s had to do.”
The role also has placed Clarke in a different mindset.
“When I leave rehearsal, I’m in that mindset of trying to keep everyone in line, and I find myself having to back away from that,” he said, laughing. “It’s just one of those things that come with the role.”
It’s also one of the things that comes with acting experience, which is new to Faith Pate.
She plays Rena in Jitney, which not only is her first UpStage production but her first theatrical role.
“I’ve been in some church plays, but this is my first stage play,” she said. “I’ve attended UpStage’s productions, and I love everything they do. And I met Dr. Turner outside of the theater, and I liked her. So, when I was asked to come audition for this part, I was excited.”
Pate also was nervous. She read the play and studied Rena. Then she developed a monologue.
Now she plays Darnell’s girlfriend.
“There were some things I didn’t understand about Darnell until I came to the end of the play,” Pate said.
Again, that’s part of the surprise.
“But I really like Rena,” Pate said. “She’s trying to make ends meet and raise her son. And she’s struggling in her relationship with Darnell. I think she’s a character we can all relate to, because we’ve all had to deal with struggles in our lives.”
In fact, Jitney’s cast of characters offers a mix to which almost everyone in the audience can relate.
There’s the boss, the office gossip, the young kid with attitude, not to mention others.
Each with his own story.
Cast: Cedric Clarke Jr., Becker; Byron Wade, Booster; Leroy London, Turnbo; Anthony Pierce, Youngblood; Faith Pate, Rena; William Farris, Doub; Marcus Lollis, Shealey.
Artistic Staff: Ava Brewster-Turner, director; Leroy London, assistant director; Patrice Leonard, stage manager; William Farris, technical director; Maddgame Entertainment, publicity.