Wednesday, June 27, 2012

August Wilson’s ‘JITNEY’ Takes Center Stage at Pasadena Playhouse With Veteran Cast Members


There is magic happening on the Pasadena Playhouse stage as an impressive cast, that includes showbiz vets, put their spin on August Wilson’s classic play, Jitney.

The show, directed by Ron OJ Parson, stars Charlie Robinson (Night Court), David McKnight (Desire Under the Elms), James A. Watson (National Pastime), Ellis E. Williams (Ovation Award winner Distant Fires), Gregg Daniel (Fences), Montae Russell (Detroit 187/ ER), Rolando Boyce (Topdog/Underdog), Larry Bates (Topdog/Underdog) and Kristy Johnson (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom).

Jitney is the first play Wilson wrote in his “Pittsburgh Cycle,” which chronicles the African-American experience in his childhood neighborhood, decade by decade, over the course of the 20th century.  Wilson’s other plays include: Gem of the Ocean (1900s), Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (1910-1920), Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (1920s), Seven Guitars (1940s), Fences (1950s), Two Trains Running (1960s), Radio Golf (1990s) and King Hedley II (1980s). Of the 10 plays in the cycle, Jitney is the seventh in the series and is the winner of the New York Drama Critic Circle Award, the Outer Critics Circle Award and the Olivier Award for Best New Play.


The show takes place in 1977 where an unlicensed gypsy cab service, run by Becker (Charles Robinson), is in business in Pittsburgh’s Hill District. It's a place where stories are told, relationships are developed and lives are changed.

I caught up with the cast of Jitney and Sheldon Epps, artistic director of the Pasadena Playhouse, to discuss the show.

Q: Mr. Epps, what is the thought process behind bringing a show to the Pasadena Playhouse.

SE: Well, is it artistic? There are economic issues. I think about the appeal of the project. I just want excellent material. How does a play contrast with the other plays we’re doing?

SHELDON EPPS, Artistic Director of the Pasadena Playhouse

Q: What is your biggest challenge?

SE: The biggest challenge is financial. There is never enough money. The economics of running a theater has changed. You have to sell a lot of tickets. Sometimes we’re in a ‘hit’ mentality.

Q:  What are your thoughts about Jitney?

SE: I think Jitney is one of August Wilson’s most hopeful plays. The end is one of his most hopeful and optimistic. At the end a door opens and isn’t closing.

Q: Mr. Parson, what do you like about this show?

ROJP: This is one of my favorites. In all of his plays you find difficult things all the time. In this case we found things. It’s the language and the music, the rhythm.

LARRY BATES - seated (Youngblood), JAMES A. WATSON, JR. 
and ROLANDO BOYCE (Shealy) in 'JITNEY'

Q: Mr. Robinson, how did you go about developing your character, Becker and why did you want to play him?

CR: I get my father’s voice. He was a decent man. That’s why I wanted to play Becker. Her reminded me of my father. He’s a guy who tries to do everything right in life and still things fall apart to a degree.

Q; Your feeling about the play?

CR: I feel fortunate and blessed to play a character like this. People need to know about him.

Q: Mr. Watson, your feelings about the show?

JW: The camaraderie and fellowship and working on an August show has been enlightening.

Q: And, you, Mr. Russell?


MR: I both hear and feel the mission he was on. He’s the greatest playwright of our modern times.

ROJP: He’s always in the room.

Q: Your thoughts, Mr. McKnight? Your character is an alcoholic.


DM:  This is my first August Wilson play. I was doing scenes with Moses on Noah’s Ark.  My father was a jitney taxicab driver in Chicago. He was an alcoholic who died at the age of 36. I draw the voice of that. Those words he’s (Wilson) wrting are precious. He’s possibly a genius.

Q: You are the only woman in the crew. What is it like to be the only woman?


KJ: It’s fun. It’s an incredible group. This is an amazing experience for me. I went to Harvard undergrad. I got a job in mergers and acquisitions. I quickly learned that wasn’t for me. I felt I had no choice but to follow my artistic goals.

Q: Mr. Parson, talk about casting.

ROJP:  I came in from Chicago. I looked at each individual character. I saw 40-50 people in two days. I wanted to see how they fit together. I didn’t go into it with any preconceived idea.

Q: The music was slammin.

ROJP: We listened to thousands of songs. The pre-show music is from the 70s. The music is an important element.

Q: Mr. Williams, what does theater do for you?

EW:  It feeds my soul. With film you stop and go. We can’t cut. TV is a drive through. Theater defines the soul. He (Wilson) left us a body of work we can all identify with. Theater is in the moment. It’s spontaneous.


Q: Mr. Robinson, what does theater do for you that television and film don’t?

CR: Film is the medium for the director – they control it.  You have no control. Television is the writer’s medium. Theater is the actor’s medium. Once I walk on stage, I’m in control of what happens.

KJ:  One of the reasons I got into this business is to get people to feel something.

ROJP:  Theater is life. Film is art and television is furniture.

The rest of the Jitney creative team includes: Shaun Motley (scenic designer), Brian Lilenthal (lighting designer), Vincent Olivieri (sound designer) and Dana Woods (costume designer).

Jitney, Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Avenue, Pasadena; Tues-Fri. 8 p.m., Sat. 4 & 8 p.m. and Sun. 2 & 7 p.m.; $29-$100, rush tickets: $15; for information: 626.356.7529 or

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