FAMU theatre pays tribute to August Wilson’s play ‘Jitney’

The University’s Essential Theatre will be honoring the memory of playwright August Wilson with its rendition of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “Jitney.”

The play, the first in Wilson ‘s 10-play cycle, will open tonight in the Charles Winter Wood Theatre in Tucker Hall at 8 p.m.

We “wanted to pay homage to August Wilson,” said Luther D. Wells, director of the Essential Theatre’s “Jitney.” Wells said the theatre wanted to do Wilson ‘s first play because it would be “interesting to see how he began with this particular play.”

Wilson, who died in 2005 in Seattle, based his plays on the black experience in the Federal Hill District of his hometown, Pittsburgh. Wilson’s plays characterize the working-class citizens of his childhood.

“Jitney” tells the story of five middle-aged men in the 1970s who make their living from their illegal “jitney” station. Jitneys, cabs operated by off-the-clock drivers, became one of the few modes of transportation for black people because cabs did not service the black community.

 Urban renewal is about to tear down their cab company, which has been running for 18 years, and force these men into unemployment. With this station being the only employment opportunity most of them have ever known, the men must join together, confront their problems and establish solidarity in this changing environment.

“It’s their livelihood,” Wells said.

Wells explained that blacks in 1970s America did not have many opportunities. And the shutting down of this “jitney” station “is a big deal.”

The play has an all-mast cast, with the exception of one female cast member, Rena. Rena is the girlfriend of one of the cab drivers, Youngblood.

 “(All-mast casts) are pretty indicative of August Wilson ‘s plays,” said Kimberly Harding, associate professor in the theatre department. Harding points out that Wilson’s plays focus on the male relationship.

Rena is a “very introverted, non-sociable, but family oriented” woman, said Danielle Thompson, who plays the character. The 20-year-old theatre student from Clemson, S.C., explained Rena’s role in the play as Youngblood’s “common-law wife.” Rena, who has a 2-year-old son with Youngblood, wants things to change within their relationship.

“(Youngblood) has cheated on Rena in the past, and she feels he’s cheating again,” said Nance, “but she’s not taking stuff like that anymore.”

 Essential Theatre had open auditions in December and began preparation for the production the first week of January. Because they were playing older men, actors were told not to cut their hair, “which they didn’t like,” Harding said, laughing.

“Ain’t no females been hollering at me,” said James Hamilton, 24, from Belle Glade. The theatre performance student plays the role of Fielding. Hamilton said Fielding is a drunk and provides comic relief within the storyline.

Everyone has “that one uncle that’s always sippin’,” Hamilton said.

Though the excess hair “gets itchy,” he said, “(the hair) is worth it for the part. … The story can touch a lot of people,” Hamilton said.

Wells said the play will “speak to everybody’s human nature.” He said the play touches on the human experience because audience members will be able to relate, either because of direct experience or through a family member’s experience.

“Jitney” will run from Feb. 14-18. Performances are Wednesday-Saturday at 8 p.m., with 2 p.m. matinees on Saturday and Sunday. 

Ticket prices are $12 for adults, $9 for senior citizens and $7 for students/children.  FAMU students are admitted free with ID.  The show contains some profanity. Parental guidance is suggested.  For more information, call (850) 561-2524.