Jitney (The Century Cycle #8), by August Wilson
In this play the author manages to again provide a thoughtful look at the black experience, in this case looking at the gap between the hopes and aspirations of blacks in the Bedford Hills area and the tensions faced by the efforts at preserving dignity and also avoiding the penalty of the law for having sought to defend oneself. The play is centered in the conflicts between people and a corrupt legal order that wishes to condemn entire neighborhoods and also between generations that are not always able to get along with each other and come to terms with the choices faced. Again, Wilson manages to strike a nuance between his unsparing portrayal of the efforts at decent and hardworking blacks to maintain their dignity and enjoy the American dream even while pointing out that dangers to their well-being come from within as well as without the community, demonstrating that Wilson is about more than simply blaming whitey (as tempting as that might be for many) but also about reminding the audience that we are often our own worst enemies, even when we have enough to fight on the outside. That is a lesson that merits reflection.
At the core of this particular play is discussion among a variety of black male characters, and the author has received some well-deserved praise for his ability to capture the planning and strategy sessions that go on between peers who seek to build a social coalition for the defense of their property interests in the face of eminent domain. While this pressure is going on, Becker, who serves as the leader of the local black community, finds himself dealing with his estranged son who has just been freed after spending a long time in prison after killing a white lover who falsely accused him of rape in the face of social stigmas on interracial couples. The tension between the father’s resolute desire to do everything the right way and the son’s bumptious desire to defend his honor even at the cost of his family’s good name and reputation is one that never erupts into violence but one that forces the audience to recognize their own struggles with the temptation to take justice into their own hands as well as the way that principled opposition to injustice can seem like cowardice to others, even if it offers the only way to improve one’s spot without unjust violence.
The struggle between nonviolent resistance and violent one is not only one that has been faced by different generations of the same families but also between different segments of the black population as a whole, and neither one has offered justice on the sorts of terms that could be taken for granted by the community as a whole. And indeed this particular play doesn’t offer justice on easy terms or on any terms at all as the play ends with a somewhat drastic and somewhat shocking accidental death of the hardworking community leader and father, which forces everyone to see how they are able to get along without him. That lack of closure and the absence of the father figure is something that many people no doubt can deal with in person, and here too we can wonder that it is not only the absence of a father that can lead to difficulties and struggles but the fact that people often do not understand the ways of either their children or their parents, with all that means in efforts for building up and achieving unity in a community where the ways of the people in it are not always known to those who are facing the same sorts of struggles for dignity and a place in the sun.