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Jitney Poses Old Questions to New Audiences

THE AFRO — Modern audiences are all too familiar with topics regarding racial inequities, widespread gentrification, car service regulations, senseless violence, PTSD and unhealthy relationships with parents and children, which is why it is a true testament that August Wilson’s “Jitney,” set and written in the late 1970s, is a timeless story that resonates across backgrounds, demographics and generations.

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“Jitney” by legendary writer August Wilson runs at Arena Stage until Oct. 27. (Photo by: Joan Marcus)

By Micha Green

Modern audiences are all too familiar with topics regarding racial inequities, widespread gentrification, car service regulations, senseless violence, PTSD and unhealthy relationships with parents and children, which is why it is a true testament that August Wilson’s “Jitney,” set and written in the late 1970s, is a timeless story that resonates across backgrounds, demographics and generations.

An intergenerational story in itself, Wilson meshes social justice and civil rights challenges with characters, all who have their personal quirks and challenges that make them important to the storytelling of Arena Stage’s 70thAnniversary Season performance of “Jitney.”

Wilson’s words are penetrating, particularly in the sense that over 40 years later, “Jitney,” has a way of perfectly resonating with audiences.

“There are few voices that articulate the American experience with the honesty and the bittersweet beauty of August Wilson,” Arena Stage Artistic Director Molly Smith wrote in the play’s program notes.

In an exclusive interview with the AFRO, Wilson’s wife Constanza Romero Wilson explained how the play’s story lines connect with modern day audiences.

“[It’s a] lot of characters that everybody recognizes–their nosey uncle, their very stubborn or authoritative father. August wrote recognizable humans that have a lot of passion for life and they want justice in their daily lives,” said Wilson’s widow, who is a costume designer. “On the other hand, the topics that are being talked about in 1970s Pittsburgh are present today in 2019. We have cycles of young violence, young people that are aimless. They don’t have a clear path for life, and they can offer so much. And we also have disillusioned parents. And then we have young people who have fallen in love and they have a hard time starting their lives.”

Romero Wilson noted that the directing also contributes to the way modern audiences in D.C. can connect with late 1970s Pittsburgh.

“I think that a wise director directs the play so that it speaks to the modern audiences,” she told the AFRO “We’re still trying to introduce August Wilson to younger audiences, to younger generations, and it speaks as loudly now as it did then.”

Directed by multifaceted artist and performer Ruben Santiago-Hudson, who was also at the helm of the 2017 Tony-Award winning revival, “Jitney,” is an honest portrayal of people who desire to fight past challenges, celebrate triumphs, move onto new opportunities and create their own paths.

With an intricate, yet practical set designed by David Gallo, audiences are immediately welcomed into the jitney, a car service, with a desk, couch, refrigerator, ride tallying board, checkers board and chairs. It’s clear that the car service office has seen better days, newer floors and more business through the technical elements and the casts’ recognizable desire to balance desperation, frustration, hope and a yearning for more. Even through the play’s sound (designed by Darron L. West and Charles Coes), opening with original Blues music by Bill Sims Jr., audiences can understand that this play will show the bewildering beauty in pain and hardship.

The jitney drivers provide rides where taxis won’t go. Much like today’s modern car and ride share services, jitneys turned people with cars to honorable and reliable businessmen for their communities.

Despite the looming threat of gentrification and loss, watching the characters battle personal and financial frustration, celebrate beautiful moments, and seek more for their lives is what keeps audiences engaged in the storytelling of “Jitney.”

Santiago-Hudson found a way for the actors to work cohesively on stage and command the set, as if they actually experienced working in a 1970s car service office.

While it may have taken the first few minutes to adjust to the dialects, and interesting speech idiosyncrasies’ of the characters, each actor lived in the truth of Wilson’s words. These veteran artists, many of whom have spent much of their careers tackling the playwright’s words, quickly transported the 2019 D.C. audience to 1977 Pittsburgh.

Turnbo (Ray Anthony Thomas), Youngblood (Amari Cheatom), Doub (Keith Randolph Smith) and Fielding (Anthony Chisholm) are the drivers who set the tone of the life of jitney drivers, while Becker (Steven Anthony Jones), who runs the service, is an example of the man who never stops working and sacrificing. Each driver had their own stories and strong acting choices that led them to be fully developed characters, with feelings and goals.

Thomas as Turnbo, the slick, nosy figure, who might come off as annoying and a troublemaker, shows that even with these less than desirable qualities, the man just wants to be accepted.

Youngblood might be hot-tempered with a smart mouth, but audiences empathize with Cheatom’s portrayal as he shows the young man’s fears and desires for greatness.

Doub-who is somewhat of the car service’s moral compass- is not just the good guy, because in Smith’s portrayal of the role, audiences can see a man who overcame a lot of trauma, who works hard to make good choices, and who wants the best for the generation behind him.

Then there’s the sweet, drunk Fielding, who, as an actor has the hard challenge of “playing drunk,”- which is difficult because people who are inebriated work to show they are not intoxicated. Chisholm’s Fielding is quite believable as he balances the drunk, old man gurgle in his voice, well-meaning actions, struggle of fighting alcoholism, and clinging to memories past.

Jones as Becker is like watching an acting workshop, as his bold clear choices show a man who is battling with secrets, feelings of betrayal, responsibility, good intentions and pain. The entire theatre shifts once Jones reveals that he is not just a good guy, but is also an unforgiving, belligerent and disappointed parent. Jones is able to simultaneously balance and portray both sides of his character until his last moment on stage.

Francoise Battiste as Booster gives audiences chills. Although his character enters later into the play, his presence immediately commands attention and lingers even when he’s gone. Watching Battiste and Jones play off one another is like watching a close tennis match, as heads move from man to man, actor to actor, hurt person to hurt person, and audiences are treated to real truths and human experiences.

Strong performances by Harvy Blanks as Shealy and Brian D. Coats as Philmore add color and comedy to the drama, and keeps audiences missing them when they’re gone.

Nija Okoro holds it down as the only woman in the cast, Rena, and she is representing for strong, intelligent, creative and well-dressed Black women. Each time Okoro stepped on stage there was a shift. Her presence required anyone in the room to pay attention to her words and empathize with her desires, and through Okoro’s honest portrayal of Rena, audiences are treated to powerful monologues and perfectly timed comedic relief.

Elements of theatricality such as well-executed and believable fight scenes (Thomas Schall) and tableaus heightened the stakes of the play and kept audiences interested in each actors’ movements.

The costumes (Toni-Leslie James) and lights (Jane Cox) were also beautiful, becoming characters in themselves, and added a value that set the mood and tone of the time period, while also appealing to the eyes of modern audiences.

“Jitney,” will have audiences considering their own ways of dealing with life’s lemons and showcases how these Black people in Pittsburgh tackled challenges- with tropes that cross demographics.

“When August wrote this play, the Black community took matters into their own hands- and it’s a story about determination. And they said, ‘Well, if taxis aren’t going to come to our side of town, we are going to start having these jitney cabs. It’s a story about self-determination,” Romero Wilson told the AFRO. “There’s so many other human stories that run through the play, that I think that there’s plenty of story lines and moments that people can relate to.”

Due to popular demand, “Jitney” has been extended to Oct. 27 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth Street, S.W., Washington, D.C. 20024.

This article originally appeared in The Afro.

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U.S. Business Leaders Step Up to Fight Inequities in the South

Even as the pandemic has laid bare societal inequities that have long eroded the foundation of our democracy, political leaders in Washington and in state capitols are mired in a level of rancor and partisanship not seen since the ideological struggles over the Vietnam War. 

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Dr. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr./ NNPA Newswire

Even as the pandemic has laid bare societal inequities that have long eroded the foundation of our democracy, political leaders in Washington and in state capitols are mired in a level of rancor and partisanship not seen since the ideological struggles over the Vietnam War. 

This toxic atmosphere has left them incapable of addressing pressing, yet ingrained issues like the racial wealth gap, the digital divide, and vast inequalities in everything from health care to home ownership.

With COVID-19 still an omnipresent concern and the country’s recovery still very much in jeopardy, individuals, families, and communities – particularly communities of color throughout the South – are struggling to deal with issues that have only been exacerbated by the pandemic.

From impediments to wealth creation opportunities and a dearth of education and workforce development to a lack of access to reliable broadband, substandard housing, and inadequate political representation, communities of color have suffered an outsized toll during the ongoing public health crisis.

Yet political leaders can’t even agree on basic facts that would allow the nation to implement a coherent national strategy for combatting a pandemic that appears to be entering a new wave amid the rise of the highly contagious Delta variant that is currently ravaging parts of the South.

Against that disillusioning backdrop, there is at least some reason for hope. Moving to fill the vacuum created by the inaction of our political class, a group of business leaders in the technology and investment sectors have embarked on a far-reaching – and perhaps unprecedented – campaign to address the social inequities and systemic racism that has historically plagued our country’s southern communities.

Known as the Southern Communities Initiative (SCI), the campaign was founded by financial technology company PayPal, the investment firm Vista Equity Partners (Vista), and the Boston Consulting Group (BCG).

SCI was formed to work with local elected officials and advocacy groups to tackle the ubiquitous problems of structural racism and inequalities facing communities of color in six communities throughout the South. SCI notes that these areas – Atlanta, Ga., Birmingham, Ala., Charlotte, N.C., Houston, Texas, Memphis, Tenn., and New Orleans, La., – were chosen in part because they are home to around 50% of the country’s Black population and are where some of the greatest disparities exist.

SCI is aiming to drive long-term change, as outlined by PayPal CEO Dan Schulman, Vista CEO Robert F. Smith and BCG CEO Rich Lesser. 

In Atlanta, for example, SCI is working to bridge the wealth gap that exists among the region’s African-American residents. While there is a strong Black business community in the city, and high levels of Black educational achievement thanks to the regional presence of several Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) and the voice of the Black press, there is still an extremely low level of Black entrepreneurship and business ownership with only 6% of employer firms being Black-owned.

To remedy this disparity, SCI is working with the Southern Economic Advancement Project to create entrepreneurship hubs and accelerator programs to increase the number of minority-owned businesses. The corporations behind SCI are also using their networks to help other companies work with minority-owned supply companies.

In Alabama, SCI is seeking to bridge the massive digital divide in an urban area where 450,000 households are without connection to the internet. In order to tackle the crisis, SCI is leveraging relationships with local schools and libraries to distribute laptops and service vouchers. Another tact SCI is taking is to partner with the owners of multi-unit buildings in low-income neighborhoods to install free public Wi-Fi for residents.

The lack of access to capital is another reason Black communities throughout the South have been traditionally underbanked. In Memphis, where 47% of Black households are underbanked, SCI is partnering with Grameen America to cover the $2 million per year per branch start-up cost to build brick-and-mortar banks in minority communities.

This alone will provide 20,000 women access to more than $250 million per year in financing.

Beyond these initiatives, SCI is partnering with groups like the Greater Houston Partnership and the Urban League of Louisiana to provide in-kind support to improve job outcomes for minority college students, expand access to home financing through partnerships with community development financial institutions, and harness the power of technology to expand health care access in underserved urban and rural neighborhoods.

The issues facing these communities throughout the South are not new nor will they be fixed overnight.

Fortunately, SCI is taking a long-term approach that is focused on getting to the root of structural racism in the United States and creating a more just and equitable country for every American.

A once-in-a-century pandemic and a social justice movement not seen since the 1960s were not enough to break the malaise and rancorous partisanship in Washington. Fortunately, corporate leaders are stepping up and partnering with local advocates and non-profit groups to fix the problem of systemic injustice in the U.S.

We, therefore, salute and welcome the transformative commitments of the Southern Communities Initiative (SCI). There is no time to delay, because as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. so accurately said, “The time is always right to do what is right.”

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Black Woman to Lead United States Park Police

 Chief Smith’s experience serving in leadership roles in every U.S. Park Police field office has provided her with an unmatched foundation to lead the diverse agency,” said Flynn, who oversees law enforcement programs at USPP.

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Pamela A. Smith

Pamela A. Smith, a 23-year veteran of the United States Park Police, will lead the nation’s oldest federal law enforcement agency.

Smith, who became the first African American woman to lead the 230-year-old agency, immediately remarked that she would establish a body-worn camera program for USPP within 90 days.

The program will initially begin in San Francisco and be implemented across the country by the end of the year, Smith said.

“Body-worn cameras are good for the public and good for our officers, which is why I am prioritizing implementing a body-worn camera program within my first 90 days,” Smith offered in a statement.

 “This is one of the many steps we must take to continue to build trust and credibility with the public we have been entrusted to serve.”

Smith earned a bachelor’s degree in Education from the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff and graduated from the FBI National Academy. She is a member of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives and the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

During her law enforcement career, the proud Zeta Phi Beta Sorority sister has served as a patrol officer, field training officer, canine handler, and academy instructor at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center.

 According to a news release, Smith also served as executive lieutenant to the chief of police, assistant commander of the San Francisco Field Office, commander of the New York Field Office, acting deputy chief of the Homeland Security Division, and deputy chief for the Field Operations Division.

Smith was the first woman to lead the New York Field Office as its Major.

At the USPP, she will lead a 560-member workforce that protects the public, parks, and the nation’s most iconic landmarks in Wash., D.C., New York City, and San Francisco metropolitan areas.

“Chief Smith’s commitment to policing as public service and her willingness to listen and collaborate make her the right person to lead the U.S. Park Police at this pivotal moment in our country,” Shawn Benge, deputy director exercising the delegated authority of the NPS director, noted in a statement.

 “Over the coming months, the leadership of the National Park Service will explore opportunities with Chief Smith designed to strengthen our organization’s commitment to transparency. Her personal and professional experience make her acutely aware of and ready to meet the challenges and responsibilities that face U.S. Park Police and law enforcement agencies across the nation.”

 Jennifer Flynn, the associate director for Visitor Resource Protection at the National Park Service added that she’s looking forward to Smith’s leadership.

“Chief Smith’s experience serving in leadership roles in every U.S. Park Police field office has provided her with an unmatched foundation to lead the diverse agency,” said Flynn, who oversees law enforcement programs at USPP.

 “As federal law enforcement officers, the U.S. Park Police officers have a new opportunity each day to give their best to the American people. Chief Smith exemplifies that approach as a colleague and mentor, and she will be instrumental in refining and shaping the future of the organization,” Flynn said.

Smith declared that she would lead by example and expects all officers to display integrity.

 “I have dedicated my career to the professionalism of law enforcement, and it is my highest honor and privilege to serve as chief of police,” Chief Smith declared. “Today’s officers face many challenges, and I firmly believe challenges present opportunities. I look forward to leading this exemplary team as we carry out our mission with honesty and integrity.”  

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