|by Jim Amidon • April 16, 2013|
Professor of Theater Dwight Watson watched proudly as his cast of August Wilson’s gripping play Jitney rehearsed Monday night. In full makeup and costumes, the Wabash College students — many first-time actors — brought to life the very jitney stations they had toured weeks before on a short, intense immersion trip to Pittsburgh.
Professor Watson took his cast to Pittsburgh in early April to perform a staged reading at the August Wilson Center for African American Culture. The students were able to tour the Hill District and see jitney stations still in operation.
“From the very first read-through of the script, these guys were all-in,” said Professor Watson. “There was an excitement and energy they delivered from day one. The cast was pretty galvanized before the trip to Pittsburgh, but the immersion helped them more fully understand Wilson’s story.”
Jitney was the eighth play in Wilson’s 10-play “Pittsburgh Cycle,” and was written in 1979, though the playwright continued to revise the work until its off-Broadway premier in 2000. It tells the story of the lives of the gypsy-like, unlicensed cab drivers that worked the Pittsburgh Hill District through the 1970s, and particularly the broken relationship between a father and son.
The Wabash Theater’s production of Jitney runs through Saturday night at 8:00 p.m. each evening in the Experimental Theater of the Fine Arts Center. Seating is limited, and tickets can be reserved by calling 765-361-6411 or by emailing the box office.
Senior Edward Evans, Jr., plays Becker and runs a jitney station that is scheduled to be boarded up as part of an urban renewal project. His son, Booster (played by A.J. Clark), has been imprisoned for 15 years for brutally murdering his white girlfriend. Evans said the trip to Pittsburgh was critical in his understanding of the play.
“We rode down many of the same streets referenced in the play: Wylie, Bedford, Webster, and Dinwidee,” Evans said. “We saw the Irene Kaufman Settlement House and August Wilson’s birth home. We saw two jitney stations! It is one thing to read a play, rehearse lines, and imagine what August Wilson is trying to portray. However, there is unparalleled power in immersing yourself in the life of the author and in interacting with the people that truly jitney for their livelihood.”
Sophomore A.J. Akinribade, back on stage after appearing in Take Me Out in February, plays Youngblood, the youngest and most frustrated of the jitney drivers. He’s been unfaithful to his wife, Rena (played by DePauw student Felicia Santiago), in the past, and she and the other drivers think he’s sneaking around on her again. Instead, he’s secretly trying to purchase a house for his wife and child.
Akinribade said that when creating his character he drew heavily on his experiences in Pittsburgh.
“The Hill District of Pittsburgh today is still the same Wilson explored when writing his 10-play cycle,” Akinribade said. “Our engagement with the jitney station completed the scope. The personality of the drivers, their interactions, and the community’s dependency on their service explained to us how realistic Wilson meant for Jitney to be.”
Sophomore Lorenze Billups makes his stage debut as the hustler Shealy, while senior Tyler Griffin explodes as the easily provoked Turnbo.
Griffin’s stunning performance was also enhanced by his immersion into the community surrounding the playwright’s birthplace.
“Few actors get to see their scripts awaken from their slumber and become a reality,” Griffin said. “The streets, the voices, the sentiments, every word resurrected from their crumpled pages and spoke volumes to not only our character development, but to our own personal growth. God, it sounds cheesy, but our Pittsburgh experience was simply life-changing.”
Michael Hodge plays the drunken Fielding who keeps getting tossed from the station for violating the “no drinking” rule (though Becker always takes him back). Rounding out the ensemble are seniors Ryan Lutz as Philmore and Devan James Young as Doub, who portray struggling drivers.
The play will be presented in the Experimental Theater. James Gross has designed an intimate setting for the jitney station, and the audience is placed uncomfortably close to the action as it unfolds. Andrea Bear’s costumes are vintage 1970s; she makes Billups in his role as Shealy look as though he could have performed with the Jackson Five.
Joe Mount serves as stage manager, while Greg Huey ’12 is the assistant to the director. Huey said that while he has graduated, the opportunity to be a part of the production and the trip reinforced his love of learning and of the Wabash community.
“While some of the drivers welcomed us to immerse in a community and culture that is uniquely their own, others were not as thrilled about the idea,” Huey said. “Despite their differences and varying points of view, you could still sense that they were a community. This reminded me much of the sense of community and culture of not only the diverse cast of Jitney, but of Wabash College as well. It reminded me that although I have graduated that I still am and will always be a part of this community.”
Curtain time for Jitney is 8:00 p.m. each evening. Because of intimate seating, the audience is encouraged to arrive early. The play includes some strong language and themes and may not be suitable for young audiences.