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Jitney Interviews

Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company introduces you to the performers of Jitney

Written by Genea L. Webb

Les Howard. Photo by Genea L Webb.

Sala Udin, Les Howard, and Jonathan Berry were thrilled when they received the call to perform August Wilson’s Jitney again.

“When Mark said I could repeat the role I got very excited,” said Les Howard, who is playing Turnbo. He last played the character 13 years ago when Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company produced the play in its former Penn Avenue location. “Coming back to it again, you see different things and you layer it even more because you have an understanding of the work. You take what you have seen and what you understand, and you build from there. August Wilson is like a modern-day Shakespeare. His work captures slices of life from his life and that’s why his plays are so successful.”

The eighth in August Wilson’s American Century Cycle of ten plays and set in the Hill District in 1977 in a dilapidated Jitney station, Jitney highlights the lives of the drivers at the station owned by Jim Becker. Cabs did not go into the ghettos, so residents had to rely on jitneys to get from place to place.

Sala Udin. Photo by Genea L Webb.

“This is my third time doing Jitney,” explained Sala Udin, who began acting in 1968. “It’s like my personal testimony with my father. We had a lot of conflict in our lives and this story reminds me of the importance of giving your father his props while you still have time because you may lose him. I never got the chance to tell my father that he was right and that I was stupid. This play is familiar territory because I still live in the Hill District where August and I grew up. We went to grade school together and I pass his birth home frequently.”

Elexa Hanner. Photo by Genea L Webb.

In conjunction with August Wilson House, the production will be performed in the backyard of the house, 1727 Bedford Avenue in the Hill District, where August Wilson grew up. The space has been renovated and serves as an arts center for the Hill District. The August Wilson House will host its grand opening ceremony during Jitney’s run. Celebrities will be in town during opening weekend, August 12-14, to enjoy the festivities. Tickets for opening weekend are $50 and $42.50 thereafter, with discounts for seniors, Hill District residents, artists, and students. In the event of inclement weather, the show will be moved to an indoor space in the Hill District. Jitney will run through September 18th.

“August Wilson was one of the few writers in Pittsburgh who knew how to articulate the Black experience for us. I’m from where he’s from and I understand what he’s talking about. I’m learning about my Pittsburgh ancestors through his script. He’s talking about a lot of working-class people—my parents and my dad,” said Elexa Hanner, who portrays Rena in Jitney. Hanner grew up in various areas throughout Pittsburgh and attended CAPA High School before attending Penn State for musical theater. She received her BFA in 2021.

Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company’s last production of Jitney was in 2010. Founder and producing artistic and executive director Mark Clayton Southers believes the show will reintroduce some theatergoers and introduce some spectators to the wonderful work of August Wilson.

Mark Clayton Southers. Photo by Saihou Njie.

“We are working on the cycle for a second time. and we have three plays left in the cycle. Jitney was a good fit this time,” said Southers, who learned the art of playwriting under Wilson’s tutelage. “We use the annual August Wilson play to fund other Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company productions. It takes a budget of about $100,000—which comes from donors, foundations, and ticket sales—to do the plays. This also gives a lot of actors the opportunity to do an August Wilson play who never had the chance. We like to get out-of-state actors to give our audience new faces to look at, and give Pittsburgh actors the chance to work with different actors.”

Les Howard and Richard McBride. Photo by Saihou Njie.

Jitney characters are: Jitney station owner Jim Becker, played by Sala Udin; Vietnam veteran Darnell (Youngblood) played by Richard McBride; Youngblood’s girlfriend, Rena, portrayed by Elexa Hanner; Becker’s son, Booster, played by Jonathan Berry; easygoing Doub, played by Chuck Timbers; alcoholic Fielding, played by Mike Traylor; and Boykin Anthony as hotel doorman Philmore and Roosevelt Watts as bookie Shealy.

Raw talent and bringing fresh faces to the Steel City for Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company audiences to enjoy is why Southers chose Mike Traylor to play the role of Fielding in Jitney.

Les Howard, Mike Traylor, and Richard McBride. Photo by Saihou Njie.

“Mark directed A Soldier’s Play in Phoenix earlier in the year and he asked me to come do this show. It’s really exciting and it’s really an amazing gift to be doing August Wilson in Pittsburgh,” said Traylor, who hails from Phoenix and earned his theater degree from the University of Arizona. He has performed eight of Wilson’s ten Pittsburgh Cycle plays including Jitney, which he acted in 25 years ago. “I’m blessed. Who gets cast into one of August Wilson’s productions in the city that he talks about and where August Wilson is from? That’s just too much. It’s more than I could ask for.”

Roosevelt Watts, Jr., Dionysius Westbrooks, and Richard McBride. Photo by Saihou Njie.

Lucky is the first word the comes to mind when fellow castmate Jonathan Berry thinks about how he got chosen for the role of the troubled character of Booster for a second time for Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company.

“I draw on my relationship with my father for this role. My father is in his 70’s now. I don’t fear him physically but there is fear and respect that I have for him, and I hope to convey that respect and loving fear this time. Last time I focused on the anger that Booster has, but this time it’s more real and I want to treat it according to what I have experienced. Even when my dad gets on my last nerve I still respect him,” said Berry, who started acting when his mother enrolled him in an acting class at the former Point Park Playhouse. He grew up in Clairton and now lives in Penn Hills. He has done seven or eight of Wilson’s plays and would like to do more in the future. “We are losing who we are as a Black culture in America. August has somehow captured it. The realness and rhythm in August Wilson’s work is what Blacks can relate to. It’s beautiful.”

Richard McBride. Photo by Saihou Njie.

Richard McBride’s love of text and language is what drew him to the role of Youngblood.

“I just finished Two Trains Running at the Pittsburgh Public Theater, and this is my first play with Pittsburgh Playwrights. Being in an August Wilson play has always been a goal of mine. I always knew that people held his work in high regard, and I wanted to be a part of that. Working with people who knew him personally amplifies the process,” said McBride, who was born in Mississippi, grew up in Baltimore, and studied musical theater at Point Park University, graduating in 2011. “I see this role as a challenge, and I welcome that. It’s a gift to be able to do August Wilson.”

Sala Udin. Photo by Saihou Njie.

Fresh off his role as Frank Bolden in Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company’s production of The Double V, Boykin Anthony is glad to be returning to the stage as Philmore.

“This is my first August Wilson play. My daughter (who serves as assistant stage manager in Jitney) did August Wilson’s Piano Lesson when she was seven years old. I’m excited to be here and I’m glad to finally be here. I’m thankful that Mark believed in my talent enough to put me in this. As a youth, I didn’t know about August Wilson. I started acting with Kuntu Repertory Theater and learned how Dr. Vernell Lillie and Rob Penny created Kuntu, and I found out about August Wilson’s work. August took a piece of his home—what the Hill District meant to him and what jitneying meant to Pittsburgh. To have that represented throughout the world, that’s amazing,” explained Anthony, who grew up in Wilkinsburg, lived in Larimer for a time, and currently resides in Highland Park. “I love that Mark and Pittsburgh Playwrights put on the ten Cycle plays. It’s something that each generation can find inspiration in.”

August Wilson’s storytelling and his gentle manner is why Chuck Timbers jumped at the chance to perform in Jitney.

Roosevelt Watts, Jr. and Chuck Timbers. Photo by Saihou Njie.

“The places August Wilson talks about in his work; I grew up in. I remember him, as a kid I’d see him walking to the barber shop. I didn’t know history was being made. I got the pleasure of meeting him when I did Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, he came to see it and he invited us to New York to see it. I love August Wilson’s work and Mark has given us the opportunity to do our craft without having to leave the city. I love the stories August Wilson tells and the meaning behind them. I thank God that he made August Wilson.” said Timbers, who grew up in the Hill District, now lives in Beltzhoover, and has been acting since 1986. He performed Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom four times. “History is being made here in Pittsburgh.”