Week One of the August Wilson Century Series – Jitney

First, here is a link to the episode of Theater Talk that featured the Tony-award winning cast of Jitney in 2017:

This one is also good:

Here is a review from Memphis production last year.

It was interesting the way we focused our discussion on relationships, the peripheral relationship between Turnbo and Rena, the complex and layered relationship between Becker and Booster, and the evolving, dynamic, almost dance-like relationship between Rena and Youngblood. Relationships are such an essential, human thing, always transforming, always reflecting the environment that surrounds them, for good or ill.

We could have easily spent the whole class period on Becker and Booster’s father-son relationship, Becker’s deep disappointment in the mistakes that his son made and the consequences of those mistakes, the hopes that Becker placed in Boomer, and the energy he attempted to transfer to the future where Boomer might have more and better opportunities than he had. But I also think that at some level, Boomer’s “acting up” and the decisions he took that incarcerated him were a rejection of the pressure he felt from his father, and a not so subtle decision that he was going to live his own life, not the one Becker tried to transfer over to him. At the play’s end, Boomer starts toward the door to leave the jitney office, but the phone rings, and after a negligible hesitation, Boomer goes over and answers the phone, “Car service” as the light fades to black. I think that motion and action symbolize that there is hope for Boomer and there is hope for the jitney operation.

There is of course a lot to be said about Youngblood and Rena. One thing we didn’t discuss today was the tenderness of emotion Becker displayed in his conversation with Rena and Youngblood. Becker says towards the end of Act 2 Scene 1,

When you look around you’ll see that all you got is each other. There ain’t much more. Even when it look like there is…you come one day to find out there ain’t much more worth having.

Here we see that despite the gruff Becker displayed towards his own son, he never stopped developing as a father, never gave up on his own emotional development, and we are left wondering if one day he might have overcome his great disappointment and been able to show a similar level of affection for Boomer that he clearly has for Youngblood.  Alas, Becker’s potential for development is arrested on the factory floor so we will never know. As Vonnegut would say, “so it goes.”

We will see more of this relationship dynamic in Ma Rainey next week.

Characters

Jim Becker, the well-respected manager of the jitney station. In his 60s.
Doub, a driver, cautious and slow going, a Korean War veteran. One of few August Wilson characters who is a military veteran.
Fielding, a driver, an alcoholic, formerly a tailor who clothed Billy Eckstine and Count Basie.
Turnbo, a driver, notorious for being a gossip.
YoungBlood (Darnell Williams), a driver. Recently returned from Vietnam, working several jobs to provide for his family. In his late 20s. Another rare veteran.
Rena, YoungBlood’s girlfriend and the mother of his young son, Jesse.
Shealy, a flamboyent bookie who uses the jitney station as the basis of his numbers running operations.
Philmore, a local Hotel doorman and a frequent jitney passenger.
Booster (Clarence Becker), Becker’s son, who has just completed a 20-year prison sentence for murder. In his early 40s.

Postscript. 1977. The seventies were considered by many the post-Civil Rights era. The seventies witnessed a local push back against urban renewal and opposition to 50’s and 60’s redevelopment projects in America’s urban areas.

https://www.thoughtco.com/african-american-history-timeline-1970-1979-45445

p.s. There are the issues, peripheral and center stage, of urban renewal and prison reform, that bear discussion. Finally, the video of the revival Broadway production actors above discuss the idea that Wilson began writing Jitney, put it down to write Seven Guitars, then returned to Jitney later. Some characters and lines overlap…

Specifically in 1977:

Patricia Roberts Harris is the first African-American woman to hold a cabinet position when Jimmy Carter appoints her to oversee Housing and Urban Development.
Andrew Young is the first African-American to become a U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations.
For eight consecutive nights, the miniseries Roots is aired on national television. Not only is the miniseries the first to show viewers the impact of enslavement on American society, but it also achieved the highest ratings for a television program.

1st week links from Google Group.

http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/august-wilson-the-ground-on-which-i-stand-scenes-and-synposes-of-august-wilsons-10-play-cycle/3701/

http://old.seattletimes.com/html/obituaries/2002536239_august03.html

Bill Moyers interview on You Tube:

A You Tube playlist of excerpts from all the plays:

The Light in August Wilson – Suzi-Lori Parks interview

https://www.americantheatre.org/2005/11/01/the-light-in-august-wilson-a-career-a-century-a-lifetime/

This first link provides a speech August Wilson gave upon his return to Minnesota in 1991. The speech is not specific to any particular Wilson play, but provides rich background to character and plot development for all his plays.

–.-

1st meeting of August Wilson Century Series study group

March 5, 2018

1. Introduction
A. Who are we?
B. Why are we here?
1. Had seen several Wilson plays on stage over the years
2. Heard Denzel Washington plan to direct plays for screen

2. Class
A. Methodology
1. Collaborative close read
2. Learning subjectives vice objectives
3. The community is the curriculum
4. Required reading
5. Start thinking about recurrent themes across the plays
B. Study Group representative:
C. Feedback
1. Google Group (demonstration if time permits)
2. Blog page
3. Comments and suggestions

3. Intro comments on Jitney
A. 1st play. Series not yet contemplated, mixed reviews
B. Last of plays to make it to Broadway
C. 2017 Tony for best revival play

4. Begin the readings

5. Next week:
A. Post comments on Jitney
B. Read Ma Rainey for discussion

postscript.

Week 1 of the August Wilson study group is behind us! I thought 8-10 people would be an optimal size, but 18 signed up!  We started off with an introduction to the methodology, focusing on the collaborative close read, and two concepts I borrowed from #Rhizo15, learning subjectives (vs objectives) coupled to the idea that “the community is the curriculum.” Three quarters of the group members are retirees, one quarter are housewives and house husbands.

Here is what I posted to the Facebook ModPo Alumni Study Group (seen by 33 but liked by none):

Week 1 of my collaborative close read study group on August Wilson’s Century Series. The first play was “Jitney.”

1. First class went well. But we jammed together introductions and close read discussions in this first meeting and we ran out of time. I had hoped for 8 group members but we ended up with 18. 25% of the members are retired attorneys who know all about unpacking language!

2. Implementing “The Community is the Curriculum” from #rhizo15 was/is a big hit. There are two high school english teachers in the group who have taught Wilson’s plays. There is a college professor who actually knew and was acquainted with August Wilson.

3. Not everybody was able to access the Google Group where I had stashed a lot of background material. We hope to remedy that by 1) getting everybody a gmail account so they can access the group and 2} mirroring the group on a publicly accessible blog site here:

https://wordpress.com/view/raymonddmaxwell.com.

4. Versioning presented a slight hiccup. Members had three versions of the play, so page # references didn’t align and we lost a minute or two in each presentation trying to get everybody on the same page (literally!).

5. It was interesting the way the group immediately seized on drawing general principles from specific instances in the play through the close reading process. (The play is about a small black community in 1970’s Pittsburgh but the group decided that the principles were/are universally applicable).

6. Next week is “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” Will be posting notes here weekly and thinking about ways to move the course to a bigger virtual audience.

A big part of being a study group leader is conversation traffic direction!  That’s a good problem to have because so far everybody is enthusiastic about contributing to the conversation .

In preparing the coursework and background material, I find a big role to be curation, looking for the best, most impactful “stuff” online to share with the group. Still ironing out technology wrinkles, i.e., some couldn’t access the Google Group (that I am trying to use in place of forums in the Coursera platform) and some are not in the habit of checking their email.  

Week 2 is going to be fun! 

August Wilson considered himself a poet before he became a successful playwright and that comes through as we unpack the various sections of text (lines?, lyrics?).

Too much fun AND they reimburse us for parking!  

OK. More later.

8 thoughts on “Week One of the August Wilson Century Series – Jitney

  1. Thank you for the recap of today’s class. We all seemed to be quite enthusiastic about the material and each other’s thoughts about it.
    I am not used to this type of interactive computer exchange–not sure how to do it (technically–never blogged, or entered comments after a class or any of it) don’t know who can see comments, etc. Will try to gear up.

    I do think that with all our feelings and desires to talk about the issues raised in this body of work, the problem of everyone getting a chance to read their passage, and a chance for comments might cause time problems each class. What can we do about that?

    I will try to be better about raising my hand and not blurting out.
    Sometimes I think I will forget what I was responding to if I can’t just get it out in the moment.

    Like

    1. Thanks, Betty. I am excited about the class and the next ten weeks of exploration. I agree about the time limitations of the classroom. Perhaps these online representations, the posts and the comments, can the fill or bridge the gap. The blog, by the way, is publicly accessible, while the Google Group is only available to subscribers. Thanks again for your comment here.

      Like

  2. I want to ask Ray and the class about Music: In real life, would there have been a radio playing in a typical jitney office (though not workable on stage, competing with the actors’ voices) and if so, what kind of music? Ma Rainey (died 1939), Bessie Smith (d. 1937), mostly other blues, or something else?

    “Jitney” is set in 1977. In the mostly, what, late ‘60s and into the ‘70s the blues artists I got to see and hear in my white world were Lightnin’ Hopkins (d. 1982), Rev Gary Davis (d. 1972), Muddy Waters (d. 1983), James Cotton (d. 2017), and the like. Different generations. Is it clear who August Wilson was listening to, beyond Rainey and Smith? Will this become apparent in due time?

    And on a different topic, Relationships, it seems to me Wilson suggests that, in many (husband-wife, father-son, man-to-man) our strengths sometimes mask our weaknesses, making it harder for us to recognize them.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Great! Great! Great! Thank you for posting these videos. I’m not familiar with August Wilson, but hearing him talked about and his work discussed with such love and understanding is fascinating. Loved it!!! Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

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