I am drawn to stories with multiple layers and textures, and the following story I did for The Reader (www.thereader.com) is a good example, as it resonates on social, cultural, historical, and artistic levels, among others. The piece uses the production of the August Wilson play Jitney to look at the gypsy cab phenomenon that is the context for the drama and to look at the theater company that put on this production and its founder-director, John Beasley. When I found out that Beasley himself had driven a jitney in his hometown of Omaha, the symmetrey was complete. Beasley has a distinguished track record acting in Wilson plays in regional theater and he is personally responsible for introducing Wilson’s work to Omaha. His company, the John Beasley Theater & Workshop, has performed virtually the entire cycle of Wilson plays and is considered a fine interpreter of the late playwright’s work. Beasley knew Wilson and for the production of Jitney I wrote about here he brought to Omaha two more veterans of Wilson plays in the actors Anthony Chisolm and Willis Burks.
Get Your Jitney On: August Wilson Play ‘Jitney’ at the John Beasley Theater
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Gypsy cabbies are at the heart of a milestone event in Omaha theatrical history unfolding this month at the John Beasley Theatre & Workshop, located in the South Omaha YMCA at 3010 Q Street.
For its current production of celebrated American playwright August Wilson’s drama Jitney, the JBT’s assembled some of the leading interpreters of the two-time Pulitzer Prize winner’s work. Its director, Claude Purdy, is perhaps the dramatist’s foremost collaborator outside famed director Lloyd Richards. Adding luster and weight to the ensemble cast are award-winning regional theatre and Broadway actors Anthony Chisholm and Willis Burks, members of Wilson’s stock company. The actors are joined on-stage by the theatre’s namesake, John Beasley, a Wilson regular who’s worked with Chisholm. In a first, Beasley appears in Jitney with each of his sons, Tyrone and Michael, both of whom he shares intense scenes with.
Boasting four artists closely associated with his signature plays, there’s even talk Wilson may visit Omaha to catch Jitney during its JBT run. Like his Broadway-produced Seven Guitars, Two Trains Running, The Piano Lesson (Pulitzer-winner for best drama), Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, Fences (Pulitzer and Tony Award-winner for best drama) and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Jitney’s set in Pittsburgh, Pa.’s black Hill District. The Wilson “canon,” as Chisholm calls it, is richly evocative of the monumental struggles and triumphs of the African-American experience, from slavery till today, as filtered through the rise and fall of one neighborhood Wilson knew as a child and rediscovered as an adult. It’s the place that nurtured him as an artist and that he’s chosen as a prism for telling The Black American Story.
Wilson has said his Hill plays are about “the unique particulars of black culture…I wanted to place this culture onstage in all its richness and fullness and to demonstrate its ability to sustain us…through profound moments in our history in which the larger society has thought less of us than we have thought of ourselves.”
In telling the story, the JBT’s gathered an unusual confluence of talent that president/artistic director John Beasley sees as a step towards his vision of making the two-year-old facility a regional theatre. It’s his hope the JBT continues being a magnet attracting top talent from around the country as well as a training ground and launching pad for local actors, directors, playwrights in pursuing their craft.
Nothing quite like this has happened on the Omaha theatre scene. Touring troupes from the Royal Shakespeare Company and Guthrie Theatre have done residencies. An occasional New York director or actor has come through. But Omaha hasn’t had this many artists of this caliber work in a locally produced play, unless you count opera, since 1955. That’s when two Hollywood-Broadway icons at the peak of their powers, native Nebraskans Henry Fonda and Dorothy McGuire, returned to perform in an Omaha Community Playhouse benefit production of The Country Girl. Henry’s ingenue daughter, Jane, made her debut in that same show.
Now, half-a-century later, the JBT is stamping itself as an important regional presenter of a living master playwright’s work. The New Yorker’s John Lahr has said of Wilson, “No one except perhaps Eugene O’Neill or Tennessee Williams has aimed so high and achieved so much in the American theater.”
Although set in Wilson’s hometown of Pittsburgh, the action reverberates with the wider black experience. For example, John Beasley drove a jitney out of two Omaha stands — Chappie’s Corner and Speedy Delivery — in the late 1960s. “Yeah, those were the days, man,” he said. “We’d go into the jitney stand in the morning and give the owner something like a $6 fee. It’d say ‘Pickup and Delivery’ on the window of the store, but everybody knew what it was. And then when the calls came in you took ‘em in order. Some of us had regular customers. They’d call in and ask for certain guys. ‘You got a car? Yeah, where you going?’ A dollar would carry you most places. You used your own car. Unmarked. I had a little raggedy Ford at the time. I think the farthest west we went was the Crossroads.”
Unregulated cabs have long been a fixture on Omaha’s Near Northside, where they serve a gap left by city sanctioned and state licensed cab companies reluctant to serve residents there. Since the displacement of homes and businesses by the riots and North Freeway construction of the late ‘60s, north Omaha’s high crime rep has made regular cabbies even more leery of taking calls or cruising for fares there. “There’s still jitneys today. Cabs don’t want to come to the north side. It provides a service to people who maybe don’t have cars or don’t have licenses. And as high as gas is going, a lot of poor people can’t afford to drive,” Beasley said.
Jitneys are officially banned, but authorities look the other way because they do fill a need. As Beasley put it, “What are they going to do? Nobody else is serving the neighborhood.” Anyone in north Omaha can tell you where to find one. Postings for their services adorn public bulletin boards. Former University of Nebraska at Omaha public administration professor Peter Suzuki drove a jitney in Omaha in the early ‘70s to research a series of published papers he wrote on the subject. He said drivers of that era were typically young men — as Beasley was then — or retirees looking to make ends meet. Jitney stands, bookie joints and after-hours spots were vital parts of the black community. “That’s why the story resonates with me so much,” Beasley said. “It’s a black experience. A personal experience.”
Partly based on the denizens of a Pittsburgh jitney operation, the play gives voice to a working-class segment of black American culture. Anthony Chisholm said, “It shows how this cab station contributed to the service of the community. It was a lifeblood of the Hill. It gives you a peak into a certain category of lives there that made up the mosaic of the whole. It shows black men in the throes of survival.”
A building in Pittsburgh’s Hill District
Amid their patter, invective and humor is revealed an authentic, vital vignette of inner city street life rarely glimpsed by non-black audiences. But the real power of the words and ideas is they are culturally specific yet universal. Chisholm suggests that with only minor changes the play would work equally well with “white working class” characters. Their lives are similar. “The soul and humanity in these words are in every human being on this planet,” he said. “There’s a lot of humanity in Jitney.”
Guest director Claude Purdy said that above all, he loves “the language” of Wilson. “He’s a poet.” Purdy’s strong ties with Wilson put him on intimate terms with the icon. Their friendship goes back to when they were emerging artists in their shared hometown of Pittsburgh, whose Hill District is the inspiration for the writer’s projected ten-play cycle chronicling 20th century African-American life. It was Purdy who suggested Wilson turn his Black Bart poems into a play and leave Pittsburgh for St. Paul, Minn.’s lively theater scene. Purdy preceded him there to direct at the Penumbra Theatre Company, a black regional theater. It was, indeed, in St. Paul where the largely self-educated Wilson turned playwright. He only found his voice, however, after returning to Pittsburgh and steeping himself in its culture.
Among the venues where Purdy’s mounted Wilson’s work is the American Conservatory Theatre, the L.A. Theatre Center, the Pittsburgh Public Theatre, the Penumbra and the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre. He’s also directed regional-national tours of various Wilson works. Guest actors Anthony Chisholm (Burr Redding on HBO’s Oz, the film Beloved) and Willis Burks (CBS’ Law & Order, the film Sunday) have worked extensively in Wilson plays. They workshopped Jitney with him. They and castmates of the original 2000 New York production won Drama Desk/Obie Awards for best ensemble performance. Jitney won the Drama Critics Circle Award as best play of the year, one of seven Wilson works so honored. Chisholm appears in Wilson’s new play, Gem of the Ocean, opening on Broadway in the fall. Each man considers it “a privilege” to speak Wilson’s words.
“He’s a philosopher and a poet along with being a great storyteller,” Chisholm said. “He writes really deep stuff. His passages are food for thought for everyone. I always recommend anyone take the time to read his plays. If you read O’Neill or Tennessee Williams or Shakespeare or Chekhov, or you’re just in the habit of reading, then his work is a must.”
According to Burks, “Saying the words of such a powerful writer as August Wilson is like speaking the words of my own Shakespeare because his work is about my people and what we do and what we are as a community. I can relate with that. Not that I can’t with Shakespeare. But I have more ties with these types of characters that we play. In my neighborhood where I was born and raised in Birmingham, Alabama, I saw these same people. I knew these same people.”
John Beasley claims his own Wilson connection. The owner of major props in film (Rudy, The Apostle) and TV (Everwood), the Omahan first came to prominence in Wilson plays on Minneapolis, Chicago and Atlanta regional theatre stages.
Under Beasley’s guidance, the JBT is fast becoming an August Wilson showcase. Housed in the site of the defunct Center Stage Theatre, where Beasley honed his own acting chops, the JBT grew out of a kind of rescue mission. In 2002, he reopened the abandoned Center Stage by mounting Wilson’s Tony Award-winning drama Fences, which he directed and starred in. Its success led the Omaha Housing Authority, which oversees the La Fern Williams Center the theatre is part of, to rename the Center Stage in Beasley’s honor. That’s when he and son Tyrone, himself a regional theatre veteran, began taking ownership of the JBT.
Since Fences, the JBT’s presented Ain’t Misbehavin and the Wilson plays Joe Turner’s and Two Trains and Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who’ve Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf. It’s no accident Jitney is the fourth Wilson play among the JBT’s six offerings to date. “August Wilson is arguably America’s greatest living playwright,” Beasley said. “His work is always well-received. But I still don’t see theaters around here taking on his plays. I think it’s essential, especially in Omaha where we really don’t have a minority media voice, to have this arena,”.
In Beasley’s eyes, Wilson reveals a story often withheld or obscured. “Basically, he deals with every decade of the 20th century…with blacks migrating from the south to Pittsburgh and what they faced once they got there,” he said. “His characters talk about what happened back down south and touch on some of the reasons they came north. It’s always their stories. The plays deal with the era of urban renewal, when a lot of black businesses and neighborhoods were being boarded-up and blight set in and how, once redevelopment came in, blacks were being forced out. You can see the same pattern here in Omaha. He’s really telling the black American story, but the thing about August’s work is it’s not just the black experience, it’s the human experience, and that’s why I love August.”
Beasley’s elicited the same strong identification from white audiences playing Troy Maxson in Fences as he has playing Willie Loman in Death of a Salesman. “Both are tragic figures who had a dream dashed,” he said. Each craves recognition, affirmation. As Loman says, “attention must be paid.”
The men in Jitney share similar regrets and rants. They comprise an independent, disparate breed of urban entrepreneurs threatened by encroaching “progress.” Representing a variety of ages and life experiences, they must all hustle to get by. There’s Becker, the weary cab stand owner whose heart has grown cold over the terrible mistake his son Booster made. In his stage debut, KETV photojournalist and Kaleidoscope host/producer Ben Gray plays Becker. Tyrone Beasley essays the estranged Booster. As Turnbo, the resident gossip always messing in other people’s business, John Beasley assumes a role he’s performed many times before. In the part of Youngblood, the upwardly mobile Vietnam vet desperate to escape The Life, is Michael Beasley. The former pro basketball player made his JBT debut last year in Two Trains under the direction of his brother Tyrone.
As Fielding, a former tailor who drinks too much pining for his ex-wife, Anthony Chisholm recreates one of the roles he’s become identified with. Playing Doub, the sardonic Korean War vet, is Omaha actor Vince Alston. Shealy, the good-natured numbers runner, is recreated by Willis Burks. Familiar Omaha actor Kevin Williams appears as Philmore, a frequent customer and the stand’s drunk comic relief. The only female character, Rena, is the distressed wife of Youngblood. She’s played by Iris Perez, a Hot 107.7 FM on-air personality and just one of many talented local actresses the JBT’s developed in its ongoing acting workshops.
Tensions and jokes abound among the men of Jitney. Personal baggage weighs them down. Their lively exchanges and monologues ring with the authentic African-American vernacular, idiom, patios and sensibility that Wilson could only get from careful observation and listening, something he did haunting the Hill District’s juke joints, bars, diners, clubs, hotels, whore houses, jitney stands and bookie parlors.
Chisholm and Burks have walked with Wilson through those same streets, going to some of those very places and meeting the colorful figures he’s based characters on. They’ve heard the laughter and despair. Wilson is known to write listening to the strains of Bessie Smith and other great black music stylists and his spoken words do echo the plaintive tone, lyrical jive and lift-up-thy-voice testimony of gospel, soul, jazz and the blues. “All of his work has that really nice rhythm about it,” said Beasley. “It’s jazz. That’s how his plays sound to me. I compare him to Shakespeare. It wasn’t until I learned the music of his writing that it really flowed for me. Every word is well chosen for a certain rhythm…for a certain effect.”
The words are often quite funny, too. Burks said he and Chisholm were part of an early tour of Jitney on “the chitlin circuit,” where they played to audiences in broad comic strokes. “It can go in that direction,” he said. “The laughs are there.” It was later brought back to its dramatic roots. The actors also witnessed Wilson expand the play by more than an hour. “It was a different play then from what it is now,” Burks said, adding that whole characters were dropped and others made over. Burks character Shealy became “less fly” and more “respectable.” Chisholm’s Fielding was “rounded out” and given a “back story” drawn from the actor’s tailor-father. Booster was made less “gangsta” and more “educated.”
When the Jitney men learn the surrounding neighborhood is slated for demolition, their cab stand becomes a kind of metaphorical last stand for all they hold dear. In the end, each stands alone, yet together. “What is it about is a tough question to answer because it’s such an ensemble piece. Every character has his own story,” said JBT associate artistic director Tyrone Beasley. “It’s like a slice of life that comes into focus at this critical moment in their lives.”
“That’s what Jitney is, it’s a slice of life,” John Beasley said. “The interesting thing to me is the relationships between each of these individuals and how they eventually pull together for a common goal. Even Turnbo, who’s a pain in the ass. They’ve got a business to save. Like one of ‘em says, ‘Where else can you make $40 a day?’ That was pretty good money in the black community in those days. It was a decent enough way to make a living. It was a necessary business, too.”
What Beasley’s doing with Jitney is part of a stated mission to move his theatre to the next level. “I want to do things not being done by other theatres in town, which is basically plays by and about minorities. I want this to be a regional theatre where established artists can come and work with local artists. What I’m finding is, it’s taking on a life of its own,” he said.
Jitney’s guest artists say they’re down for return engagements and support the JBT’s aim of joining America’s handful of black regional theatres. “In regional theater it’s all about putting it together and making a good ensemble piece. It’s working with people who respect the writer and respect the process. And from what I’ve seen, it’s the same thing here,” said Burks. Chisholm added, “It’s a great opportunity to work your chops.”
- Stephen McKinley Henderson, an August Wilson Stalwart (nytimes.com)
- A Private Jitney for Jeff Koons’ Balloon Dog? (observer.com)
- Millburn Jitney Stop to Stay (maplewood.blogs.nytimes.com)
- Jitney minibuses offer a cheaper option for N.J. passengers, but ride can be risky (nj.com)
- Award-Winning Playwright Lanford Wilson Dies (foxnews.com)
- Anthony Chisholm is in the House at the John Beasley Theater in Omaha (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- What Happens to a Dream Deferred? Beasley Theater Revisits Lorraine Hansberry’s ‘A Raisin in the Sun’ (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Crowns: Black Women and Their Hats (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)