By Carol Mockovak, Becketwood Member
Eighteen Becketwood members and friends joined the crowd at opening night of August Wilson’s play Jitney at the Penumbra Theater. The evening was the kick-off of the theater’s 40th anniversary season, Still We Rise.
Among the friends attending opening night with the Becketwood theatergoers were two members of Penumbra’s artistic staff -- Lighting Designer Don Darnutzer and Scenic Designer Vicki Smith. The two are married and live in the Longfellow neighborhood. Becketwood Members and friends enjoyed visiting with Don and Vicki and getting their insiders’ knowledge about Wilson and the play.
Jitney was the first installment in what became a ten-play cycle that Wilson created. The plays depict the black experience in 20th century America. Each play in the cycle represents one decade (Jitney the 1970s). Wilson grew up in the Hill district of Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, and used his experiences there to craft the plays.
Lou Bellamy, founder of the Penumbra Theater, had an early connection with Wilson. Bellamy and James Craven, who is in the current production of Jitney, were among those who knew Wilson at the beginning of his career.
At the time, Wilson was best known for his poetry; he had just begun writing plays. Wilson wrote Jitney in 1979, after moving to St. Paul. John Fenn (Becketwood Member) saw a staged reading of the play at the Playwright Center and was impressed. Fenn remembers thinking that Wilson was a playwright with a great future.
Penumbra first staged Jitney in 1985. The play takes place in a makeshift taxi dispatch office, which served African Americans. The vehicles dispatched were called jitneys. The play’s underlying themes focus on urban redevelopment and the destruction of African American communities. Penumbra’s location in the Rondo neighborhood reverberates with the history and reality of Wilson’s words.
Today Penumbra is known for having produced more of Wilson’s plays than any other theater. Bellamy, now Co-Artistic Director with his daughter, Sarah, directs the new production of Jitney. The play has had rave reviews, sellout crowds and an extended run. The last performance will be Sunday, November 13. Don’t miss it!