August Wilson’s Jitney by American Stage

August Wilson's Jitney by American Stage

The American Stage production of August Wilson’s Jitney is my first August Wilson experience and tickets to the production were my birthday gift to my partner this year. Both he and my father are huge August Wilson fans, however, so I heard a lot of praise before I went to the play itself, and I’m happy to say it stood up to the hype fairly well. Note: spoilers to follow.

As for the play itself: Jitney takes place in an illegal taxi cab office in 1977 Pittsburgh run by Becker, whose son Booster is about to be released from jail for murder. The drama surrounding and between the men in the office comes bubbling to the surface, including conflicts between Youngblood and Rena (the only woman on stage), Youngblood and Turnbo, Turnbo and everyone, Becker and Fielding, Becker and Booster, and everyone with women basically. It’s not a feminist play, I’m warning you. This includes arguments, a stand off with a gun, fisticuffs, and a lot of door slamming. In the end Becker’s sudden death (obvious from foreshadowing) gives Booster the chance to redeem himself, and Youngblood reconciles with Rena, bringing hope of a life outside their declining neighborhood.

There is some discussion of racial tensions in the play including the juxtaposition of two speeches: one by Becker about how the white man doesn’t care enough about you to oppress you as an individual, which is thrown into sharp relief against the fact that Booster’s white girlfriend accused him of rape when her father caught them together, so he shot her. Becker refuses to forgive Booster for throwing his life away, and Booster realizes his father is right too late to make a difference. As the play comes to a close no reconciliation has taken place between the two men, but Booster takes up the mantle of business owner, and it is implied he will try to be the same pillar of the community that his father was.

As to the play not being feminist, it’s not even pro-woman. The men in the office have a love-hate relationship with women; they chase them, often two at a time, and yet the general consensus is that women ruin men’s lives. Youngblood loves Rena, though their relationship is rocky, and Becker clearly loves his wife (and dearly loved his late wife). That aside there are long speeches about how nothing ruins a man’s life like a woman – if I’m remembering correctly one character is implied to be celibate for this reason – and Booster’s life is ruined by a woman falsely accusing him of rape. From what I hear, Wilson as a playwright only has a few strong female characters in his ten play corpus (the so-called Century Cycle) in part because he draws on his own experience and writes what he knows. As much as I would love for there to be strong women in his plays, he is examining relationships between and the lives of African American men in the US, and the play makes up for the lack of women with extraordinary focus. Just as one can’t judge Toni Morrison for her lack of male characters, one can’t go to an August Wilson play expecting balanced female characters. I can live with that.

On to the review of this specific production by American Stage.

Jitney by August Wilson, set by American Stage

Can I begin by saying that this set is amazing? Set design and costuming is always important to me, but this set and the costumes were so perfectly realized that I am going to stay something that I never say about plays: I was transported. There were times, in this three hour play, that I forgot that I was at a play at all, and that almost never happens to me. The entrances and exits happened through the door on stage rather than the sides, which I thought was brilliant, and people would stay in character through the hallway windows. The stage felt aged and so real, it was tremendously impressive.

Perhaps even better than the aesthetics, this production was brilliantly acted, all of the emotion, tension, and jokes felt natural and real. American Stage has assembled a tremendously talented cast. My partner felt that Rena was the weakest actor on stage, but I think her facial expressions were perfect, and it cannot have been easy to be the only woman on stage. Rena’s character is one that can easily be caricature: mistrusting girlfriend, the responsible parent, and classy girl with a (presumably) trashy sister (named Peaches). I think the actor did a lovely job with a challenging role to bring to life, and playing opposite of Youngblood cannot have been easy because he was incredible.

I tried to get this review up as soon as I could because American Stage is running Jitney through the end of February 2016 and I cannot recommend it highly enough. If I could afford it I would see it again, and if you love American literature or theater, you owe it to yourself to see it.

Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure

J'accuse!

J’accuse!

Measure for Measure is one of those fascinating plays in the Shakespearean cannon that almost defies staging and is rarely filmed. Classified as a “problem play” (or “comedy” if you’re kind of messed up) it involves religion to an almost absurd level. The title is, as I’ve been told, a reference to the Sermon on the Mount, which I know nothing about, as I was raised Taoist. However, Shakespeare wouldn’t be crammed down the throats of high school and college kids alike if he didn’t have universal applications so it still bears analysis regardless of all the allusions that I don’t get. Sorry not sorry, dominant culture.

The play revolves around the hottest nun in town, Isabella, and everyone attempting to sleep with her. Pervs. Ooh, Measure for Measure: Pervs of Vienna would draw a good crowd for those of you producing it for the stage. The Duke of Vienna (Vincentio) has just realized that he been more carrot than stick and decides to “leave town” and make Angelo the temporary Duke. Angelo has a reputation for being super uptight and the Duke feels like Angelo will 1) do all his dirty work while 2) making the Duke look super nice in comparison. A flawless plan. Angelo, like all uptight people, doesn’t want anyone to have sex before marriage, so he shuts down all the brothels and arrests Claudio, a gentleman’s son, for getting his fiancee pregnant. Her name’s Juliet(ta), obviously, and I want to do a reading of this as an alternate timeline where she never meets Romeo but my professor would really hate that … due to it’s inaccuracy. Anyway, Claudio asks his whore-loving friend Lucio to get his sister Isabella right before she enters the convent, and make her use her rhetorical prowess to get him of jail. It works if you consider Angelo deciding to kill Claudio sooner and rape Isabella to be “success”. It’s not. She fails. Get thee (back) to a nunnery!

The Duke dresses up like a friar so that he can get the dirt on everyone and realizes that Angelo is going to kill Claudio and he also doesn’t love the nun rape thing. The Duke decides to trick Angelo into sleeping with his ex-fiancee Mariana whose dowry loss ended in a sound dumping by Angelo. They perform a “bed trick” off stage, the would-be raper (Angelo) becomes the rapee (Angelo) and none’s the wiser. The Duke, after some trouble, gets the head of a dead pirate and swaps that for Claudio’s (who is alive still) and then Angelo, very upset, feels bad about everything. The Duke then pretends to come back into town and puts everyone on the spot. He lets Isabella think her brother is dead (his girlfriend also just gave birth btw) because he thinks it will make his being alive so much more interesting. He also decides to screw with Lucio, who accidentally badmouthed him to his face while he was in disguise, egging him on, of course. The Duke makes Isabella beg while he pretends not to believe her, makes Mariana and Isabella beg while he pretends not to believe both of them, then forces Angelo to marry his ex who I’m sure he won’t hate or be awful to. He reveals Claudio to be alive and then asks Isabella to marry him, thus enacting the same kind of coercion that Angelo is guilty of and becoming a total hypocrite. Then, if all this isn’t enough, he forces Lucio to marry a prostitute that he knocked up, which I feel is a professional hazard of an Elizabethan whore … but whatever. The Duke also pardons Barnardine, a criminal, just to confuse us more … the end!

So, what is up with this play? Some readings see the Duke as good and Angelo (“angel”) as bad, some people see the Duke as evil and executing a long con on Isabella, one staging has a random person come up and stab Isabella at the end. Notably she doesn’t say yes or no to the Duke, but I’m assuming she wanted to become a nun because people would not stop hitting on her, and I can’t imagine she’d be all “this fake friar who is actually the Duke has totally changed my mind about serving God” and marry him. Isabella is one of those great Shakespearean women, like Catherine, who spits fire, so I don’t see her running off the second she’s offered a Mrs. degree. A comedy, by definition, ends with marriages, but can it still be a comedy if two of the marriages are forced and one coerced? Oh, and I forgot to mention, at the “trial” Isabella says the Duke should pardon Angelo because it was her fault that he got all rapey. EMPOWERMENT!

Another interesting facet of the play is the way it punishes and polices sexuality. The Duke allows brothels, but lets Angelo do the dirty work of tearing them down, the forces Lucio to marry “a whore” (as he puts it). The Duke forces Angelo to marry Mariana who … I guess wants to marry him even though he almost raped her friend and she tricked him into sleeping with her? Is a husband who hates you really better than being single? How terrible was life back then? And the Duke usurps the parents rights over Julietta and God’s claim on Isabella (the ultimate man) so the Duke’s like “I’m the only man that matters! Also all those confessions you gave me might not be legit, bye!”

Measure for Measure is a problem play, a play without answers, a play that tedious people have written at length on because church, a play that I have to write about and even though I have a lot so say (see previous 930 words) I don’t know what to argue. This was my pre-game, I hope you liked it. Even if you didn’t I think you’ll agree that the painting up top is pretty sweet.

Shakespeare’s Henry VIII

This guy

This guy.

Last night I simultaneously watched and read Shakespeare’s Henry VIII and I have to admit, it wasn’t that bad. At the moment I’m in my final stages of being (yet again) in graduate school for a MA in Literature and I just so happened to sign up for an incredibly grueling class, otherwise I would never read/watch a play (I would just read it). The BBC version that I watched was excessively long, but that’s because it cut out maybe 40 lines of dialog total, abating my guilt further. In Shakespeare’s canon I take the Histories with a grain of salt because they are regarded as boring by so many (even the ones with Falstaff, who is great). I vastly prefer his comedies, but that’s me.

Henry VIII‘s claim to fame is that the modest cannon fanfare that accompanies it burned down the Globe. That fact is interesting and completely useless for my class, I just wanted to mention it here, because if I mention it in class my professor will be like “So what?” and then mentally note that I deserve a B in the class. I presume.

In Henry VIII the famously amorous Henry forces a divorce on the Catholic badass Catherine of Aragon. She easily has the best speeches in the play and is way smarter than everyone else, immediately seeing through Cardinal Wolsey, and laying down verbal beatings at every turn. She’s loyal to her servants, too, which I think is an excellent quality in a Queen. Of course Henry divorces her under the guise of wanting a male heir, but mostly because he wants to force the much younger Anne Boleyn to sleep with him, poor girl. She never had a chance. Anne’s “old lady” lady in waiting is my second favorite character because she’s so rude to everyone and almost gets away with it (when she lies to Henry about the first baby’s gender – because she thinks it’s funny to screw with the king’s emotions – he stiffs her on her tip, but it’s better than dying like most of his wives will).

Cardinal Wolsey is the stock bad guy who, after accidentally foiling himself by giving incriminating letters to Henry like an idiot, repents all the awful stuff he’s done. Also he realizes that when he took down Catherine he accidentally opened the doors for the Protestant Reformation, OOPS! It’s kind of hilarious that a king known for two things (one: being super fat, and two: being super amorous) took a big bite out of Catholicism. Catholicism never saw it coming!

Either way, I still think the History plays are a yawn fest, and this one is too by and large, but it’s worth experiencing for Catherine, who is amazing. Wish me luck making this all sound smart in time for my class tonight!

PS: It’s my birthday. I couldn’t figure out how to work that into the post and I wanted to say it, so … yeah.

My Exquisite Taste in Cat Art Strikes Again

Black Cat by Brigette Barrager

Black Cat by Brigette Barrager

I started this post two years ago and today when I was going through some old drafts I realized I never posted it. Above is a gorgeous cat painting by Brigette Barrager called “Black Cat” which I bought because it looks darn close to my cat Mr. Pants. It’s absolutely adorable in real life and I’m so happy that I have it in my collection.

Grey Tabby by Brigette Barrager

Grey Tabby by Brigette Barrager

These two paintings were done for the Animal Kingdom show at Gallery Nucleus that opened on February 16th 2013 and Grey Tabby (above) is still available. That’s crazy, I might need to buy it too.

Images via the brigette brigade: meow meow kitties.