August Wilson's "Jitney," set in 1977, focuses on a poor urban neighborhood where "urban renewal" just means demolition and neglect. The plot revolves around a company of unlicensed cabs trying to maintain service for an African-American community ignored by regular taxis.
"It is more relevant now than in some years since the play was written," said Roscoe Orman, the veteran actor who stars in a new staging of "Jitney" by Theatre Morgan at Morgan State University this weekend.
The tall, handsome Orman, familiar to successive generations of children as Gordon on "Sesame Street" since 1974, plays Becker, owner of the gypsy cab company.
"Since I first saw a production of 'Jitney' I started salivating about the possibility of playing this role," Orman said. "He's kind of heroic in a way, but, like all of August Wilson's characters, he is equally flawed."
This is Orman's second foray into Wilson territory. He appeared in the 1988 Broadway premiere of Wilson's "Fences" and a 2005 staging of the work at Madison Repertory Theatre in Wisconsin.
That Madison production was directed by Shirley Basfield Dunlap, associate professor and coordinator of theater arts at Morgan State. Dunlap quickly thought of Orman when preparing to cast "Jitney" for Theatre Morgan.
"Becker is all about the developing and nurturing of a community," Dunlap said, "and that's Roscoe himself. He's really given back to his community. I thought he would be a natural in this role."
Dunlap sees "Jitney" as doubly meaningful for audiences today in Baltimore, where cases can still be found of taxis refusing to stop for people of color.
"If you close your eyes, 1977 and 2012 could be the same," she said. "Men don't wear platform shoes, bell-bottomed pants or huge Afros, but the blight of neighborhoods is the same. And we still have jitneys in Baltimore; we just call them hacks."
Given that Becker in "Jitney" is a father figure in the play, literally and symbolically, Dunlap had that paternal element in mind, too, when engaging Orman. The "Jitney" production involves students in the cast, stage crew, and the design of sets and costumes.
"I wanted somebody that the students could learn from, someone with a sense of warmth who could share the good and not-so-good of being in this business," said Dunlap, who also directed the "Ain't Misbehavin'" production currently at
. "Sometimes when you have an actor with a name, they're stand-offish with the students. But not Roscoe. "
Orman, 68 ("It's hard to believe I'm pushing 70 — I remember when 70 seemed ancient," he said), embraces the mentoring aspect at Theatre Morgan.
"I'm finding it to be a really stimulating experience," he said. "I like, as a practicing actor, to be in a position to teach others the craft. It reconnects me to the fundamentals. Some actors seem to think they know everything. When you teach others, it forces you to re-examine the elements of your craft."
The Bronx-born actor has show business in his DNA.
"My maternal grandfather was a big influence," Orman said. "He was in vaudeville in Harlem in the 1920s."
Orman attended the High School of Art and Design in New York, where he studied acting, singing and visual arts. He has worked steadily in the profession since the 1960s.
An opportunity to perform a non-Muppet role on "Sesame Street" — the character of a schoolteacher and father, Gordon Robinson — provided Orman with his most famous assignment.
"I hadn't seen 'Sesame Street' before I joined the show," he said. "I was just about to become a father when I got the job, and that incentivized me. I really enjoyed working with Jim Henson, the writers and other actors. You can't compare that show with anything that came before it in children's television. It had tremendous entertainment appeal to adults as well."
The actor has supplemented the steady "Sesame Street" gig with work in movies and on TV, including episodes of "The Wire" and "Law and Order." He has also written children's books.
"Jitney" will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Friday, 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, 3 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Sunday at the Murphy Fine Arts Center, Morgan State University, 2201 Argonne Drive. Tickets are $10 to $25. Call 443-885-4440 or go to ticketmaster.com.