Lights go up on the wood-paneled stage in the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center auditorium to reveal the inside of a jitney cab station in Pittsburgh. It’s early fall 1977 and the Hill District, a group of neighborhoods that have long been the cultural center of black life in the city—full of black-owned homes, businesses, jazz clubs and more—has for two decades been boarded up, block by block, in the name of urban renewal.
Nine characters sit in tableau on the stage, bathed in dramatic light, and the audience is afforded a momentary look at their expressions, their presence, before the play—August Wilson’s Jitney—begins.
There’s Darnell, known to his fellow cab drivers as Youngblood, a Vietnam War veteran working a couple of jobs to build a better future for his girlfriend, Rena, and their son. There’s Philmore, a hotel doorman and frequent jitney passenger; hotheaded busybody driver Turnbo; Shealy, a numbers taker who uses the station as a base; Booster, back home after 20 years in the state penitentiary; Fielding, a jitney driver and former tailor to the stars; Rena, Youngblood’s girlfriend and mother to 2-year-old Jesse. There’s Doub, a Korean War veteran and longtime driver who’s felt invisible to white folks, and, seated behind a desk, Becker, station manager, father to Booster and father figure to many others.
Nine black characters—played by nine black actors—in a play written by a black playwright. It’s a rare occurrence in Charlottesville theater, but one that the city will see consistently over the next few years, as a group of local actors and directors stage all 10 plays in Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle, a decade-by-decade look at the African-American experience in the 20th century. Jitney is the second play they’ve staged; the first, Fences, directed by Clinton Johnston, had a spring 2017 run.
“Doing community theater in Charlottesville as an artist of color is always challenging,” says Leslie Scott-Jones, Jitney director and one of the cycle’s producers. When Andrea Douglas, executive director of the Jefferson School, came to Scott-Jones with the idea to stage the entire Pittsburgh Cycle, Scott-Jones agreed immediately because of what it would mean for actors and directors of color.
“No one does black theater” in Charlottesville, says Scott-Jones—black theater being plays with black characters written by black playwrights for black actors. Scott-Jones says that a lot of local talent goes ignored and unmined because there aren’t many roles for actors of color. There’s been the occasional production (Live Arts did Wilson’s Seven Guitars during its 1998-1999 season), but stories by and about people of color aren’t told as often as they could—and should—be told.
“It’s important that black stories are told by those who live it rather than those who experience it third party,” says Ike Anderson, a local actor, musician and choreographer who plays Turnbo. “For the most part, any time I play a person of color on stage, it is written by someone who isn’t a person of color and thus [writes] about a character based on how they perceive blackness. I don’t have to worry about that with August Wilson.”
While there are themes and instances in the play that are particular to the minority experience—racism and gentrification, for example—the Pittsburgh Cycle plays can also clue an audience in to the fact that the black experience is not necessarily “other,” says Scott-Jones. Jitney is a rather universal story, one of navigating an uncertain future while reckoning with a painful and complicated past, viewed through the lens of black life in 1977 Pittsburgh.
“Theater, and art in general, has the ability to touch people in ways that a conversation, or going and listening to a TED Talk, just can’t do,” says Scott-Jones.
Theater can make you feel deeply, says David Vaughn Straughn, who plays Youngblood. For him, acting is more than embodying someone else on stage. “It’s empathizing with an individual and putting yourself in their shoes and being able to convey that empathy out on stage and making the audience feel it. The more I believe it, the more you believe it,” he says.
It’s been a hard summer in Charlottesville; between three white supremacist rallies, one of which brought violence and death, and questions of how to begin dealing with systemic racism, among other things, in hopes for a future of equality, there’s a lot for us to think about. And the safe, but not always comfortable, space of the theater offers a place for some of that intellectual and emotional work to be done.
“What we’re doing, especially in light of what our town is going through, and has been going through, is immensely important because it’s the humanization of people of color,” says Scott-Jones. “And there is nothing that’s more important than that in this moment.”