August Wilson has won the Pulitzer Prize twice. He has had six plays produced on Broadway and all six have won the New York Drama Critics award. He is, arguably, the reigning American dramatist -- in a pantheon that includes Eugene O'Neill, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, and Sam Shepard.
Local theater-goers have been offered an excellent opportunity this summer to catch up on the Wilson oeuvre with two spirited and entertaining productions: Jitney (currently at NOCCA) and Two Trains Running (recently at the Anthony Bean).
The plays have much in common. Both are part of Wilson's ambitious plan of writing a play to investigate the African-American experience in each decade of the 20th century. Both are set in Pittsburgh: Two Trains in 1969; Jitney in 1973. Both involve a group of men (and one woman) in a single communal location: a diner in Two Trains; a gypsy cab company in Jitney. And in both, urban renewal threatens to demolish a black-owned business.
Using the place as his unifying device, Wilson creates a kind of Chekovian world in which individuals pour out bits and pieces of their lives, while the central story gathers around them. It is not the fate of the protagonist, so much as the life of the group that holds our interest. The secret to success is a strong ensemble. The two local productions benefited from casts who were able to project this sense of distinct personalities sharing a common destiny.
Jitney was produced and directed by NOCCA graduate Wendell Pierce (who also takes one of the major roles). Pierce attended Juilliard after NOCCA and has had an impressive career on stage and screen in the 12 years since he left New Orleans (among other things, he appeared in two Spike Lee films and on Broadway in Wilson's The Piano Lesson). The result of Pierce's "sentimental journey home" is a production marked by the polish and professionalism learned while he was away.
First of all, the show is framed beautifully. The set adapted by Daniel Zimmer from a design by David Gallo (who designed the award-winning New York production) is stunning. Two real cars sit out on the street, partially obscured by the interior of Becker's Jitney Service. A huge orange steel girder off to one side of the stage balances Becker's desk and the door, where the action tends to focus, while the crumbling downtown is visible in the distance. Davis Barron's lighting and Julie Winn's costuming are similarly effective.
One should add that the Lupin Hall theater, with a thrust extending out over the orchestra pit, manages to feel pleasantly grand, while retaining a sense of intimacy between actor and audience.
Space does not permit a detailed comment on the adroit and engaging characterizations offered by this exceptional cast. Shriff Hasan, Quinton Ray, David Kote, Chakula Cha Jua, Ron Flagge, Iam Bennu, Ashley Sherman and Wendell Pierce bring this barren little corner of the world alive, with its comic moments, its tragic underpinnings, its quarrels, loves, betrayals and valor -- so that one ends up wishing to join a picket line in front of city hall to save Becker's Jitney, if only in the hope of gaining a third act.
The core conflict is between Becker and his son. Becker (Hasan) is a hard-working, down-to-earth man who did the best he could given the opportunities that were available to him. His deepest hopes lay with his son (Pierce), a boy who won a science scholarship to college at a time when the racial barriers were falling. A love affair with a white girl ended in murder, and the boy has done 20 years in the penitentiary. Their failed attempts at reunion are poignant and uncompromising.
Meanwhile, director Anthony Bean, with a much more modest budget and a somewhat different focus (community theater/acting school) offered an amiable Two Trains Running.
Two Trains was written later than Jitney. In it, Wilson adds an off-stage character, who is a sort of voodoo woman. As in other Wilson plays, this archetypal character is endowed with ancient African wisdom and powers. She leads the characters back to their roots, their principles, their truest selves. For me, this Vision Quest solution lets some of the steam out of the story, and I found the stark, secular dilemmas of Jitney more absorbing. But once again, in Two Trains, the shared world is what truly holds your interest.
The versatile Gwendolyne Foxworth was joined by Morris Jeff, Wilbert Williams, Tim Bellow, Loren Blanchard, Joshua Walker and a remarkably poised Councilman Oliver Thomas, who did a turn as a cool dude, a charmer and scoundrel.
Like they say, nowhere but New Orleans!