On Lessons From Jitney

Riot Material
6 min readMar 25, 2020

By Seren Sensei

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.

L-R: Ray Anthony Thomas (as Turnbo), Steven Anthony Jones (as Becker), Anthony Chisholm (Fielding), Keith Randolph Smith (Doub) and Amari Cheatom (Youngblood) in August Wilson’s Jitney, directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson.

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…

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