Jitney ran for a limited revival at the Mark Taper Forum prior to the quarantines that recently swept through L.A. County. A protective measure against global pandemic COVID-19, the lockdown effectively shut down bars, restaurants, movie theaters, plays and gatherings; while leaders felt this was necessary to halt the spread of the highly contagious illness, a wave of uncertainty has settled across the landscape of the gig and freelancer economy, powered by everything from artists to food servers to Uber and Lyft drivers.
A part of August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Century Cycle“ of plays, meant to cover 100 years of Black life in Pittsburgh, Jitney, written in 1979 and first performed in 1982, remains eerily prescient for the times we find ourselves in now. Set in 1977, the play follows a cab station in Pittsburgh, where several Black American drivers operate ‘jitneys’ — or unlicensed taxis — as vehicle services for the poor Black community where ‘official’ cabs will not go. Each driver has his own personal burdens to bear: the youngest, Youngblood, is a hot-tempered Vietnam veteran attempting to save money to buy a house for himself, his girlfriend, and their young child. Local gossip Turnbo frequently stirs up trouble by offering his unsolicited opinions on the lives of others, gleaned through eavesdropping; alcoholic Fielding is repeatedly thrown out of the establishment for driving while drunk, yet he always returns, as it’s “…all he has.”
Shealy is not a driver but a bookie that runs lottery numbers out of the station, as one of the few places with a consistent public phone line, and Doub is a solemn Korean War veteran who advises Youngblood from the other end of the age spectrum as a former soldier. Station owner, Becker, struggles to keep them all afloat while structures are rapidly condemned and torn down in the neighborhood, and his son, Clarence, has recently been released from prison for the murder of his college girlfriend. A core conflict occurs between Becker and his son, nicknamed ‘Booster,’ as Becker felt he had worked his entire life as a jitney driver to provide Booster with the opportunity to better himself by going to college, which he callously threw away. Booster, falsely accused by his white college girlfriend of rape, killed her in a moment of rage against white supremacy, which he felt would have arrested and found him guilty either way. Booster also did not view ultimately college as the end-all, be-all of success, and admired his father as a pillar of the blue-collar Black community; a well respected man who provided a valuable service. He found himself confused and hurt — and even betrayed — by learning of Becker’s low opinion of himself, and willingness to close down the station for demolition.
Because, despite the plans for closure, which Becker initially keeps hidden from the other cabbies, the phone rings constantly and the drivers are in constant motion throughout the play, that takes place solely in the setting of the station. (As always, the Taper Forum provided impeccable staging and costuming to evoke the sense of an inviting and warm yet run-down community hub, to the point where it makes perfect sense when Youngblood, feuding with his girlfriend Rena, spends the night on an overstuffed couch there, or when Fielding, who was a tailor for Count Basie before giving in to his alcoholism, begs Becker to allow him to stay.) The colorful assortment of characters come and go, delivering food to families and to the elderly, picking up and dropping off individuals at their places of employment and houses of worship, providing what is clearly an invaluable service to a bustling low-income Black American community. Yet beset by gentrification and the news that the building housing the cab station would be torn down for new developments and the ‘greater good’ of the neighborhood, the drivers scramble to figure out how they will provide for themselves and their families after the loss of work.
Many find themselves in this same predicament currently. We are in the midst of a public health crisis, and public health mixed with capitalism is an unmitigated disaster. Citizens in a gig economy don’t have healthcare; they don’t have childcare during school closures or income covered by unemployment when they are ordered to stay home from work. Our government has had to scramble to draft emergency legislature for citizen aid, with California governor Gavin Newsome, for example, allocating $1.1 billion in emergency funds for businesses, and the federal government allocating a $1.5 trillion bailout for the stock market.
Yet individuals who work as independent contractors, like jitney drivers, are by and large ineligible for unemployment aid, and as libraries and other public facilities close, many also find themselves without computer or Internet access to apply for the aid that they are eligible to receive. Many communal resources have stepped up instead, with volunteers delivering food and medicine to homes in the wake of extreme hoarding and lockdown as well as gathering and publicizing large lists of resources for those in need. Our social safety nets are communal and informal, much like those provided by the drivers in Jitney. But the fact remains that we have no federal infrastructure in place for citizens, with emergencies overly adversely affecting the already marginalized: the poor, the sick, the elderly, the communities of color, and especially Black American communities. Drivers in the current rideshare economy, which has, in fact, been dubbed as jitneys or ‘g*psy cabs’ in many jurisdictions due to the fact that services like Lyft and Uber are not licensed cabs but rather personal vehicles, find themselves in the precarious situation of being: 1. Out of work due to lack of demand; 2. Forced to work despite health precautions advising us to stay in and avoid strangers; 3. Without health insurance provisions or money saved as they are not technically ‘employees,’ and have no benefits. 18% of rideshare drivers like Uber and Lyft drivers are Black Americans, while about 26% of licensed taxi drivers and chauffeurs are Black American.
While there are many similarities, one key difference is that in the 1970s, fresh off of the Civil Rights Movement, there was much greater hope for radical change in the Black American community, due to the work of organizations like the Black Panthers, MOVE, and PUSH. Hard won victories were what led characters in Jitney,like Becker and Doub, to believe in the possibility of a future for the younger generations like Youngblood and Booster, despite the choices and futures Booster and Youngblood saw for themselves. In 2020, when many Black American leaders have been assassinated, and much of Black organized resistance labeled ‘identity extremism’ and placed on FBI watchlists, there is a lack of cohesive leadership due to powerful minds and voices speaking seemingly individually rather than via a more “unified” tongue.
At the conclusion of Jitney, tragedy befalls the characters when Becker, having taken a second job at a steel mill to bring in more money for the station, dies from an industrial accident. And even that is something that would seem all too familiar today: an uninsured gig worker taking on a dangerous second job for more money that leads to tragedy. The drivers collectively raise funds for his funeral, and Booster decides to take his father’s place and continue running the jitney station for them. What is there to learn from this lesson in class warfare? We, the people, must support one another. Revolution is like a car, and even when we don’t agree, ultimately, we must all play our part in revolutionizing and driving our collective infrastructure into an interdependent society that benefits all.