Most people think of August Wilson as the country's leading African-American playwright, but you could also make a case that he is Pittsburgh's foremost author as well. Every one of Wilson's cycle of plays (except for Ma Rainey's Black Bottom), which examine black life during each decade of the 20th century, has been set in Pittsburgh, Wilson's home town, and each of them provides a vivid snapshot of that city at different points in its history. Jitney, the latest Wilson work to hit New York (where it promptly won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for best new American play) is no exception.
Set in Pittsburgh's Hill District in 1977, Jitney takes place in the dilapidated storefront where Becker runs a jitney service (the local term for an unlicensed car service, not unlike New York's gypsy cabs). The drivers, most of them in their 50s and 60s, spend their days feuding, reminiscing, and gambling--but big changes are in the air. Becker's son, Booster, is coming home from prison, where he has spent years on a murder charge. Youngblood, the only driver in his 20s, is undergoing a crisis with his live-in girlfriend and the mother of his son. And urban renewal threatens to shut down Becker's business altogether.
As written, Jitney is a lively and funny slice of life, and David Gallo's setting for the current production, now at New York's Second Stage Theatre, is as atmospheric and detailed as Wilson's script. The storefront interior, with its worn-out furniture and stained linoleum floor, appears to have been in place for decades. The semi-transparent rear walls reveal a sharply raked street, lined with real vintage-70s automobiles. Behind them are backdrops that depict an impressionistic vision of industrial Pittsburgh.
Working with Wilson and director Marion McClinton, Gallo designed a setting that, at first glance, looks sharply naturalistic, but which in fact has a style all its own. Gallo says he took from the script the notion of the room's shabbiness and its rudimentary furnishings, adding that McClinton wanted to see the street life outside as well. Also, "August gave us pictures of Pittsburgh and artists to work from--he has an incredible bond with [painter] Romare Bearden. I spent a lot of time in the Hill District taking photos, too." Furthermore, the designer says, a back story was conceived for the setting--"The room has had many other uses; it was a barber shop, a butcher shop, a pawn shop. There is evidence of barber chairs that were ripped out, a service counter, drains from when it was a meat packer, as well as a sign saying 'meats and poultry.' After all, a jitney station is nothing more than a place for guys to sit," waiting for phone calls.
In many ways, Bearden's style as an artist proved to be the key to Gallo's design. "Bearden was a collagist," says Gallo. "His works have a great sense of depth, but they're really very presentational. My set design is very presentational, as well, with everything facing front. In Bearden's collages, the sense of scale is skewed--the pieces are collaged, clipped, and stuck together. I didn't use a ruler or straight-edge in this production; there's exactly one right angle on the entire stage." Thus such items as the floor tiles and other architectural details are intentionally designed to be out of scale; the purposeful juxtaposition of these elements creates the theatrical equivalent of a collage.
The sense of depth is increased by the use of multiple backdrops on which Gallo has had painted a series of urban details. "The downstage drop is made of bobbinette," he says. "It's just substantial enough to hold graphic images. The upstage drop is a heavy netting, which holds paint." The upstage drop shows the outlines of a steel mill--an important point, as steel was the economic foundation of they city, and several of the characters have worked there. The downstage drop features the outlines of various businesses--"most of them boarded up," the designer adds. "It's to show the services that this community is not getting."
As for those cars, Gallo says, wryly, "Marion wanted to see a little bit of a car, so I went nuts and put three of them onstage." The autos were purchased in Boston, where the set was constructed [for the initial production, at the Huntington Theatre Company]. Purchased from local dealers, the cars' engines and transmissions were removed, then they were painted and rolled onto the stage of the Huntington. However, as is typical with Wilson's productions, Jitney played a full circuit of regional theatres, including Center Stage in Baltimore, Studio Arena in Buffalo, Geva in Rochester, the Goodman in Chicago, and the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, before coming to New York. "The Mark Taper has one of the smallest load-in doors you've ever seen," says Gallo, who notes that the technical staff at the Goodman "removed all the extraneous parts and chopped the cars into pieces" for easy loading into the Taper. This decision made for an easier load-in to the Second Stage where, Gallo says, "Everything has to go up a stairwell."
Oddly enough, the designer notes, during its many engagements, "this production fit into every theatre but the Second Stage. Here, we had to lop 6' off of the front of the deck. The set was designed to be shallow, but we had to make it larger for the Studio Arena. When we got to New York, we had to cut back 4' off the front of the deck and lose 10" of the city collage in the back."
Gallo adds that this was one of his easiest design conceptions. "Realizing the design took only three hours," he says, adding "It's the nature of collage to be quick and spontaneous. I had my research and a great conversation with August and Marion, and then I whomped it out." All projects should so be so easy--in May, Gallo's Jitney setting received a Drama Desk Award for outstanding set design of a play. Among Gallo's current projects is the set for Wilson's new play, King Hedley II, which is currently playing at a number of regional theatres before coming to New York. In case you were wondering, the setting is Pittsburgh, this time in the 1980s. Once again, Gallo is in a Pittsburgh state of mind.
Jitney also features atmospheric lighting by Donald Holder, period-accurate costumes by Susan Hilferty, and sound (both evocative street sounds and a score of popular soul hits) by Rob Milburn. The scenery was originally built by Huntington Theatre Company, with additional work by F&D Scene Changes, Ltd. Jitney is scheduled to run at least through July at the Second Stage, with an extension to October most likely.