Catch a Lift
Morgan State University brings August Wilson’s Jitney back to Baltimore
Published: February 8, 2012
At Morgan State University’s Murphy Fine Arts Center through February 12.
For more information, visit morgan.edu.
At the Spotlighters Theatre through February 12.
For more information, visit spotlighters.org.
Shirley Dunlap, the head of Morgan State University’s Theatre Arts program, is sitting in her office just before a rehearsal for August Wilson’s Jitney. A tall, striking woman with a salt-and-pepper afro, dangling silver earrings, and draped layers of gray, bohemian clothes, she sits before a cardboard model of the show’s stage design. At the center of that design is a shabby office for a group of unlicensed taxi drivers, known as “gypsies” in New York, as “hacks” in Baltimore, and as “jitneys” in Pittsburgh, Wilson’s birthplace, where the play is set in 1977. Pittsburgh’s downtown office buildings rise around the office like the walls of a fort.
There are multiple plot strands in Jitney, but central to the show is the relationship between Becker, an African-American man who owns the cab company, and his son Booster, who has just been released from prison after serving 20 years for murdering one of his college classmates, a white girl named Susan. Can Becker overcome two decades of anger and pain to forgive his son for his squandered promise and very public shame? Dunlap brings an unusual approach to this question, in part because of her gender.
“Very few women get to direct an August Wilson play,” Dunlap says. “His plays exude manliness, and most of the characters are male, so it’s always assumed that a man should direct. So it’s an honor—and a challenge—for me to direct his plays. I think I was prepared for it by all those Saturday mornings in the Bronx when my mother would send me to the barbershop with my dad so she could clean house. Listening to those men tell their stories week after week enabled me to do this.”
Dunlap says she wants Becker to come across as a pillar of the church and a hard-working businessman, but she has chosen to emphasize his pain rather than the anger on which most productions focus. “I wanted him to say, more or less, ‘It’s not that I don’t forgive you, but I want you to remember the pain you caused your mother,’” Dunlap says. “Becker’s wife never appears, but it’s important that the women in these men’s lives be represented in the play even if they’re not onstage. It’s a very male world—all these taxi drivers hanging around the office—but they all have women in their lives, and I wanted that female perspective to be present.”
Finding the right actor for Becker is crucial to any production of Jitney. Because 2012 is the 10th anniversary of the opening of the Murphy Fine Arts Center and the 40th anniversary of the founding of Morgan’s Theatre Arts program, Dunlap wanted to do something special for this production. So she found some money and brought in professional New York actor Roscoe Orman to play Becker. Orman is best known for his role as Gordon, the genial, bald-domed, thick-mustached character on TV’s Sesame Street, but he has enjoyed a second career as a stage actor on Broadway, for the New York Shakespeare Festival, and at various regional theaters around the country. He also has a Baltimore connection: On the last season of The Wire, he played Oscar Requer, a detective busted down to foot patrol.
During the original Broadway run of Wilson’s Fences, when Billy Dee Williams took over in 1988 for James Earl Jones in the lead role of Troy, an ex-baseball star now working a menial job in 1957 Pittsburgh, Orman took over for Frankie Faison in the role of Gabriel, Troy’s brother, a wounded, unbalanced World War II vet. Having closely observed Jones and Williams in the role, Orman finally got the chance to play Troy himself, when Dunlap directed Fences at Wisconsin’s Madison Repertory Theatre in 2002. It was there that the actor and director established the relationship that led to the current Jitney production.
Orman says there are obvious parallels between the characters of Troy and Becker, beginning with the fact that both are strong, authoritarian father figures. “These are men who came up through very difficult, segregated times and supported their families,” Orman says. During an interview in the Morgan theater’s green room, he wears a black sloping cap, a black knit jacket, and a graying goatee. “They had to be hard to survive, but sometimes that hardness is tough on their families, especially their sons,” Orman says, admiring Dunlap’s capacity to bring out the roles of the wives in both plays. “She keeps us aware of our connectedness to women. She also brings out a lot of humor, which is a big part of August’s writing. Because of the severity of these people’s lives, they develop a sense of humor, almost as a survival technique.”
Jitney has a strong Baltimore connection. It was here that Wilson came to rewrite the play for the final time over the winter of 1998-’99. Jitney had been the first play this active poet had ever attempted when he wrote the first version in 1979. Little did he know at the time that it would become part of an epic, 10-play cycle about the African-American experience, one play set in each decade of the 20th century. By the early ’90s, he had won the Pulitzer Prize in Drama for Fences and The Piano Lesson, and had had acclaimed Broadway productions for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. He had found his voice as a playwright and realized he needed to revisit Jitney. He and his director, Marion McClinton, had reworked the show for productions in Pittsburgh in 1996, in New Jersey in 1997, and in Boston in 1998, but it was in Baltimore that they added the final touches.
I interviewed Wilson for City Paper in 1998, seven years before he died of liver cancer (“August in January,” Feature, Jan. 13, 1999). “There have been times,” Wilson told me then, “when I would have been willing to settle for what I had, but Marion kept pushing. We’d leave rehearsal and stand in front of my apartment, talking for two hours. I’d say, `Man, I don’t want to write anymore—it’s midnight. I want to go to sleep.’ But I’d realize I couldn’t show up for rehearsal the next day without scenes based on what we had talked about. So I’d have to write them.
“It was . . . in Baltimore that I came up with the idea that Booster was a science whiz in high school,” Wilson added. “Marion kept asking me, `How does he meet her? What does he want?’ I said, `I don’t know what he wants,’ but I tried to answer those questions and came up with these new scenes. It was important to me that he and Susan were equals—I didn’t want him to be a basketball player or a musician. I wanted him to have potential that was diverted.”
Dunlap says the beauty of Wilson’s plays is in their universality. “Theater should not be segregated,” she says. “Fences has been done effectively not just in African-American theaters but also at Center Stage and even in Japan. Yes, it’s true that he made a promise to tell a story that hasn’t been told, the story of African-American people in 20th-century America, and kept that promise, but he also brings that catharsis that is what all theater should aim for. His stories aren’t all rosy and romantic, but they are true. I tell my cast, ‘This is like Dragnet—it’s ‘just the facts, ma’am.’”
In 1972, the year drama moved out of Morgan’s English department and became its own program, Dunlap was a student there. She, her fellow students, and a few faculty members created the program from scratch, finding their way around a brand-new stage and scene shop as they tackled everything from Amiri Baraka to Shakespeare, from Ed Bullins to Aristophanes. She came back to teach theater at Morgan from 1984 through 1995 and again from 2003 through the present. Theatre Morgan will present Euripides’ Medea this April and Ntozake Shange’s for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf in October.
Nonetheless, Dunlap still finds time to direct shows outside the school, such as the current production of Ain’t Misbehavin’ at the Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre. The show is based on the songs of Fats Waller, the singer/pianist from the ’20s and ’30s, but Dunlap didn’t want to do the standard revue where the performers sing one song after another directly to the audience. Instead she had the performers sing to each other, as if the woman singing “Squeeze Me” were trying to seduce the pianist, as if the guy singing “How Ya Baby” were trying to pick up a fellow cast member walking by. But whether it’s Waller’s witty songs in the Spotlighters’ tiny basement space or Wilson’s oedipal drama in the 2,000-seat concert hall at Morgan State, Dunlap says live theater produces a reaction that film and television can’t match.
“It’s more and more challenging to pull audiences’ attention away from the screen,” she says, “but when you do they experience something they’d never feel in a movie house or their own living room. When people come out of a play that I’ve directed teary-eyed or laughing or angry, I get a charge out of that, because I know I stirred that up.”
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