`Jitney' brings to life damage wrought as urban renewal crushes community

January 17, 1999|By MICHAEL OLESKER

AUGUST WILSON'S "Jitney" runs through a bleak and comic Pittsburgh that feels like ethnic Baltimore. The setting's a black-owned gypsy cab company whose denizens sound like an Italian barbershop or a Jewish deli, or a Latino apartment stoop or the kitchen in a Chinese restaurant.

We know these guys. Their chattery rhythms are ours. They sound like any group of people feeling themselves marginalized and trying to hold onto whatever shreds remain of a sense of self. They sound like some street corner where we pause to puff up, fall down, strut our best stuff, work out our crankiness with a trusted pal or two, break each other up, and try to collect ourselves before the rest of the world finds out how bruised we are behind the bravado.

When you walk out of Center Stage's new production of "Jitney," you'll want to have these fellows drive you home. They'll surely know the way. They feel like your neighbors, or your relatives, or the grown-up version of the gang you used to know in the schoolyard.

The play's about the ways each of us gets knocked down, and each of us gets back up. It's about the price we pay for misguided pride. It's about taking control of our own lives.

"What you gonna do with your life now that you done ruined it?" the solid, weary owner of the jitney cab company asks his son.

Actually, everybody's life is a little bit ruined between the play's great whoops of laughter: A hand wraps itself around a whiskey bottle. A mind still haunted by war glances back to stacked bodies in Korea. Another, to Vietnam. A kid who should have been a scientist returns from a 20-year prison bit. And all are shadowed by a system that seems to work around them, or against them.

White man's system, somebody mutters.

"You gotta shake off that `white folks is against us' attitude," he's told by a more experienced voice. "Hell, they don't even know you alive."

But the jitney guys know this: Those who run the system have their own agenda. Call it urban renewal, call it rich folks putting distances between themselves and poor folks, call it cashing in. The name doesn't matter, but the familiarity does.

In "Jitney," City Hall's decided to tear down the whole bleak, aging, undernourished block, leaving everybody who makes a living in the gypsy cab operation to face a crushing job market.

What's going up in the cab company's place? Nobody knows yet; the system works at its own pace. First it tears down, then it lets sit, and after a while, after the anxiety of those who are displaced turns to panic, after job losses translate to poverty, months or years later, the system will bring in the replacement buildings.

If it sounds far-fetched, try driving through parts of West Baltimore where the bulldozers have hit. Take a look at the places that once were rowhouses, and the rubble lies in the street for weeks on end.

(Random choice: Baker, between Pennsylvania and Division. A string of rowhouses was torn down a month ago, and the rubble's still sitting there. Friday morning, a fellow who lives directly across the street stood by his front door and said, "Who knows when they'll clean it up? They tear it down and they tell themselves, `Well, it's only the ghetto, ain't it?' ")

Or look at plans for the renewal of West Baltimore. Yes, it's part of the city's great second renaissance. Yes, you can smell new money in the air. But "Jitney" reminds us of those who are sometimes casually squashed in such turnabouts.

In the plans for renewing West Baltimore, for example, the city's not only obliterating the last of the failed high-rise housing projects, but business properties, too. What kind of businesses? Jitney types: plenty of pawnshops or beauty salons, beat-up places held together with Band-Aids, catering to the working class or the welfare class.

The thinking is: They'll have to settle elsewhere. The city will bring in higher-end types, and the poor will have to move on. The state's already financed a $200 million football stadium. We don't want to let it sit there as though superimposed on a slum just across Martin Luther King Boulevard.

And there's a certain sanity in this. For too long, the city's been the almost singular support of the state's poor, and its dangerous, and its handout class. Somebody else has to share the burden.

But "Jitney" reminds us: These are human beings, too, and their lives have value. They're a vision of ourselves, existing on whatever margins we live along, gossiping, cracking wise, cracking each other up, doing the best they can until something better comes along.

Pub Date: 1/17/99

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