Arena Players continues its excellent season with a performance of August Wilson’s “Jitney,” which centers around a hack stand—or clubhouse where illegal taxi drivers who served the black community waited on calls—in Pittsburgh’s Hill District in the mid-1970s. The play was first produced in 1982, two years before Thaddeus Logan published “Hey Cabbie,” his book about driving a cab in Baltimore during the same period. Logan, who writes the “Hey Cabbie” column for City Paper (see page 60), and Arts Editor Baynard Woods saw the play together and discuss the issues of race, economics, and gentrification that the play addresses.
Thaddeus Logan: I’ve been driving a cab for more than 35 years and it is shocking to me that to this day there are still a percentage of actual taxi-cab drivers who will not service black neighborhoods or transport passengers to and from those neighborhoods. Often, drivers will only pick up blacks at cab stands at hotels, train stations, and bus depots, where they really have no choice, picking up fares based solely on their position in the line. Cab service is still limited in the less-affluent neighborhoods, thus the need for illegal hack services. Though “Jitney” takes place entirely in a hack stand, or club, it goes beyond that because the drivers sit around and talk about anything and everything.
Baynard Woods: Yeah, it’s interesting the way that it is very specific to time and place—I mean with Uber and cellphones and the like, there’s no setting like we see in the old TV show “Taxi” or in “Jitney,” where you sit around waiting for the phone to ring. You’re always on the move—but the concerns of the guys, dealing with money, racism, and family problems, really are universal.
Logan: “Jitney” is quite realistic, as I recall what it was like living through that time period. The theme is universal in many black communities throughout our country. The quest for survival is paramount. Life was a struggle then as it is now for many black families. Their opportunities are limited, with roadblocks everywhere. They still have to outperform whites in just about all arenas for acceptance. They make the best of any given situation. Look at President Obama, the first black president of the United States, a brilliant man, a Harvard graduate. He has been, by many counts, the most successful track record of any president in U.S. history, which includes capturing Osama bin Laden, the No. 1 enemy of the United States. And yet there are still many people, including some members of Congress, who regard him and his position with racially motivated hostility. Yes, racism is real and alive in America today, from the most elite to the lowest common man.
Woods: That really hits at the generational relationships in the play. There is Becker (Louis B. Murray), who runs the hack company, and his son Booster (George Oliver Buntin) who has been in jail for 20 years. Their exchange is really heartbreaking when Booster gets out and comes to the club to meet Becker. The son was caught sleeping with a white woman who then claimed it was rape. Instead of fighting the charge, which was a lie, he went and killed her. The shocking thing to me was Booster’s explanation, when he talks about how big his dad was when he was a kid, how, when Becker walked into the barber shop, he filled it up. But then, Booster says, the landlord came one day and was yelling at Becker for being late on the rent and that diminished Becker and made him small in his son’s eyes. In a way, when Booster killed that girl, he was trying to avenge his father against the unjust white world. But he couldn’t see that he was actually destroying his father’s hopes to transcend that world through his son.
And, in a quick note on performance both Murray, as Becker, and Buntin as his son, were superb in this emotional exchange, which is, I think, the centerpiece of the whole play.
Logan: Becker, when we see him, was troubled by the fact that the urban renewal was going to demolish the neighborhood, the very neighborhood that included his hack business. But Becker did not inform the drivers and hack club loyals of this dilemma until it was almost too late. They were furious with Becker. But it’s also understandable—he just did not know how to deal with the fact that his business of 18 years was either going to fold or have to relocate. He was troubled and devastated; not only was this urban renewal situation going to affect him but also the lives and well being of the drivers.
Eventually, though, he develops a plan and calls a meeting where he gives a rousing speech about resisting the gentrification and not closing the business. This whole part of the play is really fascinating because urban renewal has always been a threat to the black community.
Woods: That whole gentrification angle is really timely now. In the play, the city says they are going to board up all of the buildings on the block in order to redo them, but when the hacks eventually hold a meeting about what to do, they all talk about how many other places have been boarded up for some project or another that never came. It could be the Superblock or something over by Lexington Market. But on the other hand, Youngblood (Martique Smith) is able to buy a house on the money he makes working as a hack and occasionally fixing the other guys’ cars. At the theater, you were saying that is one of the big differences, for you, between then and now, is that working people could buy houses back then.
Logan: The American Dream for many back in the ’70s was to purchase a house. This showed growth and stability. Jobs were plentiful back then. If you had the desire and stayed focused, that goal was obtainable. People were proud to be homeowners. Houses were affordable, not like the housing market is today. It was a buyer’s market. There were starter houses ranging from $10,000 to $20,000. Less than a thousand dollars in addition to closing cost could get you started. That’s what Youngblood does in the play, even though he causes some other problems by trying to surprise his girlfriend Rena (Michal Roxie Johnson) and buy it without her knowing about it. Now, that would be impossible, with houses starting at a minimum of $200,000, where you must always include the income of both parties. We have extremely high unemployment and salaries that don’t meet financial necessities, so many people will never have the opportunity to purchase a house. So that American Dream, where what the average black or white American really wants out of life is a house, a car, and to live in a secure neighborhood, now seems impossible.
Woods: But I wonder if the play is able to see this future, the difficulty of the world for people now, because it ends on a note of hope and optimism that focuses specifically on the younger generation, who would be now somewhere close to your age, the elders schooling the young kids along.
Logan: The older hackers did act as mentors to the younger drivers. They often encouraged them to further their education and to seek credible jobs with security and benefits, were sympathetic to their problems; gave advice about life and provided wisdom and knowledge when they thought it was needed.