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'Jitney': Vehicle for a friendship

The friendship between playwright August Wilson and director Marion McClintonbegan two decades ago when they both lived in St. Paul, Minn. Since then, Wilson has won two Pulitzer Prizes (for "Fences'' and "ThePiano Lesson''), and McClinton has acted in or directed all of Wilson's plays.Encouraged by Wilson, McClinton has also become a playwright. And both menhave given consideration to their legacy not only as artists, but as parents.

Now they have returned to one of their earliest projects. They are working ona revised version of Wilson's first full-length drama, "Jitney,'' whichbegins performances at Center Stage Friday, directed by McClinton, who is anassociate artist at the theater.

"Jitney'' is the 1970s installment of Wilson's decade-by-decade chronicle of20th-century African-American life. The play is set in a jitney - or gypsy cab- station in the playwright's hometown of Pittsburgh and focuses on the livesof the drivers and, especially, on the conflict between the owner of the cabstation and his estranged, ex-con son.

A few hours before Tuesday's rehearsal at Center Stage, Wilson and McClintonchatted at a conference table, sharing reminiscences and laughing frequently.Here are edited excerpts from their conversation.

Wilson: I know exactly when we met. I can tell you. OK. I got it. We did thispoetry reading and I read some poems and a couple other people read somepoems. Then this guy walked in with this saxophone and got up on the bar andrecited, what was it?

McClinton: It was a short story by Alice Walker.

Wilson: Yeah, he recited that. That's when I first remember Marion, in March1978.

McClinton: That's true. That's it.

Wilson: The saxophone was a prop.

McClinton: I was in a tuxedo, too.

Wilson: Yeah, it was odd. Who is this guy? We had a nice poetry reading hereand then someone with a saxophone, in a tuxedo, jumps up on the bar and startsreciting some stuff.

Wilson: I wrote "Jitney'' in 1979. It had its first production in Pittsburghin 1982, in a small 99-seat theater. Then I had a production in 1985 atPenumbra Theatre in St. Paul in which Marion played one of the roles in theplay, in his acting days. Prior to that, when I first wrote the play in 1979,we had a reading in 1980 and Marion was in the reading, and then Marion tookthe play, put it in a briefcase, so to speak, and carried it around to all thetheaters - not all of them, but several theaters - in Minneapolis and St. Paultrying to get theaters to do it. So he was an early advocate. They didn't doit until 1985.

McClinton: Two of the theaters that didn't do it actually closed. So that's awarning. I might have started out as an advocate of "Jitney,'' but I'm anadvocate of his work, period. I find a freedom of artistic expression workingon his work. I mean, outside of the fact that he's my friend, there'ssomething that just speaks really directly to my core as a human being, as anAfrican-American, as my mother's son, and it's enjoyable.

Wilson: "Jitney'' is the play where I learned to value and respect the wayblack Americans express themselves without trying to change it and to alterit. Whenever I did that, it always came out stiff, and it wasn't natural.

McClinton: In auditions for his plays, I hear this phrase more than anyother: "This my uncle talking. This my dad. I know this guy. This guy speakjust like my uncle, my uncle Benny. I know this guy. He's got the samephrasing. I know him.''

You hear that all the time in the auditions. And you see a joy. Because theycan walk into that audition room and bring their entire suitcase - open it up,use it, who they are, what they remember, what's been passed down as an actor.They get to bring it all. And that's not the case normally.

Wilson: I did a bit of work on "Jitney'' in Pittsburgh in 1996 [when theplay was revived by the Pittsburgh Public Theater]. But there was more to bedone. I guess the major rewriting had to do with the father-son relationship.When I first wrote the play in 1979, the father and son had one scene, and Ialways felt that there should have been another scene between them, but Ididn't know how to write that scene. I didn't know what they would have saidor anything. So rather than have that scene, I killed the father off. But Ialways felt there should be something else that they say.

So in Pittsburgh, I wrote a second scene which simply consisted of the soncoming in and the father getting up and walking out. There was no dialogue. Itwas very effective, a very powerful scene, actually. And then I said, no,that's really kind of cheating. So in Boston [where Center Stage's versionoriginated, as a co-production with the Huntington Theatre Company], I wrote asecond scene between the two of them. And here we're going back to Pittsburgh,back to the scene where the father gets up and walks out.

McClinton: The play is about duty - the duty you have to those in your life,the duty you have to the community that you live in, the duty you have toyourself to strive and to achieve what is your due. All the plays do concernresponsibility.

Wilson: I would run into Marion. Marion was always talking a play, and Ithought, man, you got to write it down. You can't just talk it, you got to putit on paper. Marion started putting it on paper. And, I don't know if youremember this, I ran into Marion one time and he said, "Man, I'm writing thisthing.'' And I said, "Marion, are you working on the kitchen table? And whenit's time to eat, you got to move all your paper and all your stuff off thekitchen table, right?'' Marion said, "Yeah,'' looking at me like, how do youknow? I said, "Marion, here's what you do. You get you a desk, and when youput your stuff on the desk, you don't have to move it. And when you don't haveto move it, that means you're a writer. You have a permanent place to write.''

McClinton: I remember that. Yes, I went out and got one.

Wilson: I found that, actually for me as a writer, the moment that I got mydesk was the most liberating moment of being a writer. I had a space to writein. It wasn't temporary. It was truly liberating. The biggest thing thathappened to me. It took me years to do that.

McClinton: I want my son to understand the values of the life of hisgrandmother, his grand- father, to understand that he comes from a greatpeople that have endured and are continuing to endure an incredible hardship,and that there's honor and courage in that, and nobility. Taking him to see[Wilson's] "Seven Guitars'' as the first show for him to see on Broadway - hehad just played tick-tack-toe with August earlier that day. To look at thatand be able to see: This is a possibility. If you want to do this, this is apossibility - that the possibilities that you have for your life aredetermined by your own character and drive rather than by what somebody elsedictates.

Wilson: I couldn't have said anything better [to my children] than Marionsaid. All of that. I think all those things are important - to know and tovalue and respect who you are.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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