In January 2017, the late August Wilson’s play Jitney made its Broadway debut. A period piece set in the late 1970s, the play is about gypsy cab drivers in an African-American Pittsburgh neighborhood. Despite the city’s economic slump, these drivers are thriving and making an honest living—all because regular cabs at the time did not want to service black neighborhoods.
Like Fences—Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize- and Tony-winning play that evolved into Paramount’s Oscar-winning smash—Jitney provides an authentic portrayal of the African-American experience in a particular time and place. The characters are flawed, embroiled in racial tensions and poverty, yet their humanity shines through.
Jitney is part of Wilson’s Century Cycle, a collection of 10 plays set in historically African-American neighborhoods in Pittsburgh and Chicago throughout each decade of the 20th century.
To celebrate Black History Month, The BEAT (Viacom’s employee resource group focused on the African-American experience) hosted a panel discussion at Viacom’s Times Square headquarters with five Jitney cast members.
View the slideshow:
Broadway and television actress Condola Rashād moderated the panel, giving the audience some background information on Wilson’s work.
“All [plays] put together create an incredibly dynamic and poignant painting,” said Rashād.
Each panelist discussed the play’s impact on their life—both professionally and personally. The cast also spoke about the resonance of Wilson’s work in 2017. Below are excerpts from this discussion. The questions and answers are condensed for clarity.
“Jitney is global—it touches everybody on the planet. It deals with humanity to its core.”
– Anthony Chrisholm
Carra Patterson plays Rena, Youngblood’s girlfriend* and mother of their son.
On the challenges faced while performing this role: Just finding the rhythm and poetry of the text, finding the balance of [Rena].
On the script’s lasting effects: That’s the beauty of the writing. It really does speak to exactly what’s going on right now—especially in my life. So, I do find myself literally saying some of the lines that Rena says in my actual life. I’m in a similar phase in my life where I am trying to make a home for myself and carve out my place in the world. So, especially when I’m speaking to my partner, I’m like, “Wow! I sound just like—I literally think that’s a line from the play.”
Michael Potts plays Turnbo, an older cab driver and storyteller.
On the challenges of playing a character who doesn’t say much about himself: Unlike some of the other characters, you don’t get to learn a lot about Turnbo’s history. As a character, Turnbo is relaying a lot of information about events that may have happened before the world of the play began. So, the challenge is how do you create a character who seems to just carry information? How do you give that character some sort of dimension?
On the relevance Jitney has in today’s world: Displacement of working class black people out of neighborhoods that they have lived in for a time because they can’t afford it [still occurs today].
It’s a controversial thing when [the African-American community] talks about Black Lives Matter but it is somehow a denial of our humanity. That was the thing that Mr. Wilson was trying to write about—he said it in interviews. Why are other groups allowed to have their specific humanity and it’s respected? And somehow, when it comes to us, we have to be like someone else or somehow it’s not understood—as Wilson said—‘our particular and peculiar humanity.’
Anthony Chisholm plays Fielding, an alcoholic who clings to the past.
On his character’s alcoholism: Alcohol caused him to lose everything, and now he’s driving a beat-up cab.
On the relevance of August Wilson: We’re living in a time of August Wilson. Even though he passed recently, we’re still living in his time.
I made a suggestion to bunch of black congressmen who came to see this when we were in Baltimore, and I said that August Wilson should be a mandatory course of study in every school.
On overcoming creative barriers as an actor: Acting is reacting, so the deeper you listen, perhaps your response will be as deep.
On Jitney’s universal appeal: Jitney is global—it touches everybody on the planet. It deals with humanity to its core.
Harvy Blanks plays Shealy, a numbers runner.
On his character’s role in the gambling subculture: Shealy provides a different kind of elixir for the members of the community. People’s eyes light up when they see me come around. I’m a numbers man and I bring hope every day. Every day they see me and they know there’s a chance that their number might come in.
On the challenges of acting: You have to remain emotionally committed and conscious every day.
On the relevance of Jitney in today’s world: Charles Blow, a columnist for The New York Times, writes about why society seems to have a problem understanding [racism and Black Lives movements]. The struggle still goes on for black men and women…to find their place in society.
Keith Randolph Smith plays Doub, a Korean War veteran and cab driver.
On the setting: For these characters, work is a family situation and they’re providing a service. In Pittsburgh, not all yellow cabs would go to certain neighborhoods to provide their service…so these unlicensed gypsy cabs would provide services to the citizens of the Hill District.
On creating realistic characters: The challenge is cracking open that nut of where humanity really exists in yourself, and then taking that onstage and trying to stay in your lane.
On Jitney’s impact on his real life: It makes me stand taller. It makes me love the poetry and music of my Alabama parents.
Jitney makes me stand tall in my blackness. You don’t judge a book by its dustcover. You actually crack the spine and read it. And I love the beauty of that.
*Andre Holland, the actor who plays Youngblood, was unable to make the panel discussion.
All photos by Bart Stadnicki.