'Jitney': Vehicle for a friendship

CATCHING UP WITH...

Playwright August Wilson and director Marion McClinton talk about life, art and the revision of an important early play.

January 03, 1999|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,sun theater critic

The friendship between playwright August Wilson and director Marion McClinton began two decades ago when they both lived in St. Paul, Minn.

Since then, Wilson has won two Pulitzer Prizes (for ``Fences'' and ``The Piano Lesson''), and McClinton has acted in or directed all of Wilson's plays. Encouraged by Wilson, McClinton has also become a playwright. And both men have 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 on a revised version of Wilson's first full-length drama, ``Jitney,'' which begins performances at Center Stage Friday, directed by McClinton, who is an associate artist at the theater.

``Jitney'' is the 1970s installment of Wilson's decade-by-decade chronicle of 20th-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 lives of the drivers and, especially, on the conflict between the owner of the cab station and his estranged, ex-con son.

A few hours before Tuesday's rehearsal at Center Stage, Wilson and McClinton chatted 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 this poetry reading and I read some poems and a couple other people read some poems. Then this guy walked in with this saxophone and got up on the bar and recited, 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 March 1978.

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 here and then someone with a saxophone, in a tuxedo, jumps up on the bar and starts reciting some stuff.

Wilson: I wrote ``Jitney'' in 1979. It had its first production in Pittsburgh in 1982, in a small 99-seat theater. Then I had a production in 1985 at Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul in which Marion played one of the roles in the play, 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 took the play, put it in a briefcase, so to speak, and carried it around to all the theaters - not all of them, but several theaters - in Minneapolis and St. Paul trying to get theaters to do it. So he was an early advocate. They didn't do it until 1985.

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

Wilson: ``Jitney'' is the play where I learned to value and respect the way black Americans express themselves without trying to change it and to alter it. 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 any other: ``This my uncle talking. This my dad. I know this guy. This guy speak just like my uncle, my uncle Benny. I know this guy. He's got the same phrasing. I know him.''

You hear that all the time in the auditions. And you see a joy. Because they can 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 the play was revived by the Pittsburgh Public Theater]. But there was more to be done. 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 I always felt that there should have been another scene between them, but I didn't know how to write that scene. I didn't know what they would have said or anything. So rather than have that scene, I killed the father off. But I always felt there should be something else that they say.

So in Pittsburgh, I wrote a second scene which simply consisted of the son coming in and the father getting up and walking out. There was no dialogue. It was 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 version originated, as a co-production with the Huntington Theatre Company], I wrote a second 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.

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