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Stage Reviews: Wilson's 'Jitney,' 'King Hedley II' have become clearer, tighter since leaving Pittsburgh

Sunday, June 25, 2000

By Christopher Rawson, Post-Gazette Drama Critic

NEW YORK and BOSTON -- More than any other August Wilson plays, his two latest started in Pittsburgh. Now, "Jitney" has reached the end of its long formative journey, an award-winning production in New York. And the still evolving "King Hedley II" has reached Boston, third stop on a journey that should prove more direct.

These two, set in 1977 and 1985, respectively, are the seventh and eighth in Wilson's cycle of plays set in each decade of the 20th century. All eight truly began in Pittsburgh, of course, because that's where Wilson himself was born in 1945 and lived until he moved to St. Paul, Minn., at age 33. From that Northern distance he began to look back at his experience in the Hill District and write about it in the rich language he had absorbed on its street corners and in its cafes.

All but one of the eight plays are also set in Pittsburgh, and Wilson has said he wishes he had set "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" there, too; it was his first play to make it big, and he didn't yet trust the significance of his Pittsburgh roots. Those roots are what the plays are all about, but through Hill District specifics, Wilson invokes an experience that also transcends location, time and even race.

"Jitney" and "King Hedley II" also started in Pittsburgh in the logistical sense. "Jitney" had its first performance in 1982 at Pittsburgh's small Allegheny Repertory Theatre, with a cast that included Sala Udin, Ron Pitts, Milt Thompson, Monte Russell and Curtis Porter. After Wilson's career took off with "Ma Rainey" in 1983, "Jitney" sat untouched until Pittsburgh Public Theater's Eddie Gilbert asked to produce it.

So in 1996, the Public gave "Jitney" a new start with its professional premiere, sending it off on the journey toward New York. That experience led Gilbert to ask for Wilson's newest play, and the eventual result was the world premiere of "Hedley" in December 1999, showcased by the simultaneous opening of the Cultural Trust's new O'Reilly Theater.

The two plays share another start, having together developed Wilson's relationship with director Marion Isaac McClinton, who seems to have taken the spot once held by the now retired Lloyd Richards as his chief directorial collaborator.

How have the plays fared?


Once, it wasn't sure that "Jitney" would ever get to New York. The June 1996 start in Pittsburgh, directed by McClinton, was eventually followed in spring 1997 by a disappointing Walter Dallas staging at New Jersey's Crossroads Theater. Despite having much the same cast and some fine rewriting by Wilson, it lost subtlety. But Wilson put it back in McClinton's hands to stage at Boston's Huntington Theatre in fall 1998.

"Marion is directing, and we're going to scrap everything else, the set and the costumes," Wilson said then. "We may use some of the same actors, but we're going to start over, and I'm going to do some rewrites . ... I want to rethink the whole character of Booster and his relationship with Becker: I wrote that 18, 19 years ago now, and I think maybe if I re-imagine it, now that I'm more mature, they'll say different things."

From Pittsburgh to New York, 1996 to 2000, "Jitney" had some 15 regional theater productions, many with the same core cast. That's a longer pre-New York period than for most of his plays. That some of his six previous plays had lost money on Broadway (although recouping later) slowed its arrival in New York and motivated the decision to stage it at off-Broadway's 249-seat Second Stage Theatre.

But that long pre-New York gestation was also due to Wilson's fine-tuning the heart of the play, the relationship between Becker, head of the jitney station, and his son, Booster, just released from 20 years in prison.

I've had the challenge of reviewing "Jitney" three times before, at the Public, Crossroads and the Huntington. For Crossroads, Wilson added a new scene and pointed bits of dialogue, and he changed the setting from 1971 to 1977. For the Huntington, he made the battle between father and son fuller, as promised, giving Booster much more to say about growing up. The Rena-Youngblood plot became richer, and the meeting about the closing of the jitney station, punchier.

Now the process of refinement is finished. Few authors make changes after a play is staged in New York -- especially when it has won the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award as best new play of the year, the seventh time (in as many plays) Wilson has copped this honor.

Seeing it in New York, Tony Awards weekend, I was struck afresh by the ensemble ease and brilliance of the cast. Several of them would certainly have been up for Tonys except for the Broadway/off-Broadway demarcation.

The wonderful core group of Paul Butler (Becker), Stephen McKinley Henderson (Turnbo), Anthony Chisholm (Fielding) and Willis Burks II (Shealy) has stayed the same since Pittsburgh. But four other actors settled into their roles only in Boston --Barry Shabaka Henley (Doub), Russell Hornsby (Youngblood), Michole Briana White (Rena) and Leo Finnie III (Philmore, a small role nicely detailed since it was just "Man" in Pittsburgh).

The role that has given Wilson and McClinton the most trouble is Booster, the son. There have been at least four -- Leland Gantt, Jerome Preston Bates, Keith Randolph Smith and now Carl Lumbly, who came on board in Los Angeles, last stop before New York. This switching suggests the difficulty Wilson had working out the father-son plot -- perhaps an extension of the difficulty he had with his own father, who abandoned him and his mother when he was young.

Through cast changes and Wilson's rewriting, Booster has become progressively less mysterious and more articulate. No Booster has seemed to me as fiery as Gantt at the Public, but Lumbly is the best since. He gives the role clarity and dignity, and at the times when the play expects it, he made me cry.

The clarifications that began in Boston continued. The sequence of Becker's life is clearer, as is the promise of Booster's youth: Prizes in the Buhl Science Fair won him a scholarship to Pitt. We learn they used to go hunting and fishing near Wheeling. Booster has more to say about what a hero his father was and how small he became when he kowtowed to the white landlord.

Their battle as to who is most to blame for their wife/mother's death has that same pell-mell conviction with which Shakespeare can get you to believe mutually exclusive arguments. This encounter ends with Booster alone on stage, the jitney phone ringing unheeded -- deft foreshadowing of the play's end.

Butler's every motion breathes authority and lifelong struggle. If "Jitney" were on Broadway, this rock-solid actor would not lack national recognition, and Henderson would have given Roy Dotrice a run for the supporting actor Tony. White's Rena is perfection -- sexy, worldly-wise, passionate. Her reconciliation scene with Hornsby's Youngblood is as touching as you could wish. (Pittsburgh's Rena, Yvette Ganier, is her understudy, and Pittsburgh's Youngblood, Russell Andrews, will move back into that role in July.)

The remaining large difference between "Jitney" now and as it emerged at the Public is David Gallo's set, which debuted in Boston. A picture-frame stage requires a bigger set than at the Public, but this is grandiose, with a huge transparent rear view of a hilly street lined with parked cars. You get a very physical sense of the ramshackle Hill District neighborhood under threat of renewal. It's so decayed, renewal may even be a good thing, despite what Pittsburghers know about how it turned out.

This large street area also allows McClinton to enrich the play with transitions between scenes -- someone chatting on the street, an early arrival looking pensively out the window, a sense of the world beyond.

The enhanced visual presence of the crumbling city helps foreground a major theme, the danger of "putting your business in the street." Where do personal relationships, private behavior or dreams belong? Where do you draw the line between outside and in? We hear of one extreme, a deranged woman who stands in the street lifting her skirt and causing a commotion. But the other extreme is also a danger, as when Becker and Booster suffer in isolated pride and resentment.

All that said, designer Gallo's grand cityscape (beautifully lit by the busy Donald Holder) does remain static, its line of cars more sculpture than living environment. Integral though the larger community always is to a Wilson play, the view of the street seems to me decoration, the sort of opening out essential in a movie but irrelevant here, where the drama happens in this one room.

In this, its most complete incarnation, "Jitney" remains a play about the extent to which we are our brothers' (and fathers' and sons') keepers. It contains Wilson's vivid mix of comedy and passion, backed by a solid sociology of men struggling to survive. As I've said elsewhere, Wilson excels in the casual, expressive revelation of emotion under the drone of day-to-day. The collective fathers of the jitney station take center stage while the story of Becker and Booster lies in wait.

With its added transitions, greater clarity of motives and relative speed (just 21/2 hours), "Jitney" justifies those who call it the most audience-friendly of Wilson's plays. How strange that it's the first of his plays to be off-Broadway, because it seems far more likely than some to have filled a larger house.

"Jitney" is at the Second Stage Theatre, 307 W. 43 St., and has been extended through Sept. 2; it may well last longer or transfer to a bigger theater. Tickets at 800-766-6048.

'King Hedley II'

"King Hedley II" is not, in this way, "audience-friendly" at all. It differs from "Jitney" as a formal banquet differs from a diner meal or an operatic aria from jazz. "Hedley" is BIG, tragic, uncompromising. It's Wilson's most operatic, most Shakespearean tragedy. And it's long -- Pittsburgh remembers that.

King, you may recall, is the hero's first name, given him by his supposed father, the cracked shaman, Hedley, whom we met in "Seven Guitars," Wilson's '40s play. Although no king, in the terms of this tragedy, King is, the dominant representative of a culture's balked promise. He's a big man, passionate, trying to learn his way in a difficult world. By many measures, he's a bad man, but so are many tragic heroes.

The Pittsburgh company stayed intact through Boston: Tony Todd (King), Charles Brown (Elmore), Marlene Warfield (Ruby), Mel Winkler (Stool Pigeon), Russell Andrews (Mister) and Ella Joyce (Tonya), with McClinton directing, music by Max Roach and set, lights and costumes by David Gallo, Donald Holder and Toni-Leslie James.

After playing Pittsburgh, they did "Hedley" for the co-producing Seattle Repertory Theatre, then came to Boston, where they just closed. Rehearsals start in August for a run at Los Angeles' Mark Taper Forum. Next come Chicago's Goodman Theatre and Washington's Kennedy Center before a planned arrival in New York -- on Broadway or off? -- in April 2001.

But no one knows just who will make the whole trip. Two weeks ago, none of the actors yet had contracts for Los Angeles. Some star might want to hop aboard -- Danny Glover as Elmore, say, or Laurence Fishburne as King. Even so, the originals might return for the rest of the journey.

Wilson has already made many changes. In Seattle, a half hour was pruned; for Boston, 10 minutes were added, leaving the play still 20 minutes shorter than Pittsburgh. Speeches moved and new material appeared. Probably it will be down near three hours when it reaches New York, but Wilson is giving himself the luxury of cutting it live.

The biggest difference between Pittsburgh and Boston is the staging. At the Public, the thrust stage made prominent the dirt yard where men face off. The Huntington's Broadway-like picture-frame stage is more two-dimensional: The dilapidated Hill District facades loom large, with a soaring sky beyond. Rob Milburn's sound design swells to match this operatic size. There's much noise of traffic, siren and thunder -- lurid effects sharpening the sense of high drama.

In a new prologue, Stool Pigeon sets some of the play's themes -- the untended land, the search for proper roles to play, the degree God grants us freedom. Facts and relationships are clarified, such as the drive-by killings that provide the violent context for King's slow search for the "keys to the mountain" -- the way to break the deadly cycle of black history.

The monologues that in Pittsburgh I called "nearly two dozen great monoliths of talk [searching] past and present" are fewer now, but they still bulk large. Partly as a result, the play often feels static. The staging seems less fluid than in Pittsburgh, with the flat plane of the two dimensional picture-frame allowing less variety than the thrust.

The play's tragedy remains that King finds a way to counter the flow of blood just as capricious fate turns against him. He might have made it to the top of the mountain, after all. But this culture is shot through with portents. It calls its truth-teller Stool Pigeon, baptizes its hopefuls in a shower of blood and demands the sacrifice of its best, like Abraham and Jacob.

"King Hedley II" is still a long, painful journey to a gut-wrenching conclusion, but the journey is gradually tightening.

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