A rendering of the poster for "Jitney," now playing at Arena Stage
A rendering of the poster for "Jitney," now playing at Arena Stage

Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater in Southwest kicks off the company’s season-long August Wilson Festival on Friday, Sept. 13 (running through Oct. 20) with Wilson’s masterpiece, “Jitney.”

Ruben Santiago-Hudson directs the 2017 Broadway production — recipient of the 2017 Tony Award for Best Play Revival — which will serve as the first of two Wilson classics performed during the Festival. The Festival continues Arena Stage’s tradition of showcasing the work of American Giants in the theater and has previously featured playwrights from Lillian Hellman and Arthur Miller, to Edward Albee and Eugene O’Neill.

As the season-long festival unfolds, there will be a wide range of discussions, events and panels that delve into Wilson’s (1945- 2005) legacy and impact on American theater. Arena has produced nine of Wilson’s 10 plays from his American Century Cycle which chronicle the Black experience in the U.S. throughout the 20th century.

“Arena Stage has had a love affair with August Wilson; when considering influential American playwrights, [he’s] a giant among giants,” said Artistic Director Molly Smith. “While his American Century Cycle has been read and performed in its entirety and his plays are produced all over, we are focusing on the impact he has and how he changed the landscape of American theater. His ideas, language and artistry pulled American theater into the 21st century, before we had even gotten there ourselves.”

Events slated for September include: A Designers Panel: Building the World of August Wilson, Sept. 16; a private Master Acting Class with Santiago-Hudson and students from Howard and Georgetown universities, also on Sept. 16; and a Writers Panel: On the Shoulders of Giants — August Wilson’s Dramatic Legacy, which will take place between performances of “Jitney,” Sept. 28.

After the Oct. 17 performance of Jitney, a post-show discussion with Paul Ellis, Wilson’s nephew and executive director of the August Wilson House in Pittsburgh, will take place in the Kreeger Theater.

Leading up to the production of Seven Guitars (April 3 — May 3), Arena will host a Women of Wilson Panel on April 25, including award-winning actress, director and producer Michele Shay (Broadway’s “Seven Guitars”), who have originated and defined Wilson’s strong female characters.

Additional events will include a documentary film screening and community discussion panels, hosted in collaboration with the August Wilson Society, centering around relevant topics: Gentrification in D.C. and African American Music and Society.

Synopsis of the Scheduled Wilson Productions

“Jitney” — The play unveils the dramatic story of a Pittsburgh jitney station, a symbol of stability, as the jitneys struggle against an oppressive lack of opportunity and unnerving neighborhood gentrification which threatens the way they live and work. The drivers resist powerful forces while coming to grips with their pasts to fulfill their own hopes and dreams for the future.

“Seven Guitars” — 1940s Pittsburgh serves as the scene for Wilson’s fifth play. Seven lives are interconnected when an old friend and blues singer, Floyd Barton, vows to turn his life around after a surprise windfall leaves him hopeful for a second chance. Infused with rich and soaring blues rhythms, the play pits the desire for a better future against the harsh realities ultimately leading to heartbreaking and unescapable circumstances.

For Actor Harvy Blanks, the Play’s the Thing

Actor Harvy Blanks (Photo by Joan Marcus)
Actor Harvy Blanks (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Veteran actor of all things August Wilson, Harvy Blanks, who comes off the 2017 Tony Award Winning Jitney Revival, brings the role of Shealy to Arena’s stage. He’ll continue to be a part of the national tour as it moves on to cities including Los Angeles, Seattle and Detroit.

Make no mistake — Harvy has proven himself and then some, starring in all 10 plays that encompass Wilson’s American Century Cycle.

Prior to devoting his energies and life to the stage, he once played football All-American for the University of Washington. There, he says, like many of his friends, he had hoped to eventually be chosen to represent a team in the National Football League. However, he chose early in his matriculation to leave the team after becoming fed up with numerous examples of racial discrimination from other teammates during his short stint within the school’s athletic program.

He currently lives between New York City and Denver.

Washington Informer: Do you have any regrets about leaving football, abandoning your dreams and turning your attention to the stage?

Harvy Blanks: For a long time, yes, but things didn’t go right for me in Seattle politically. Being from Chicago, I didn’t have much fear and had been raised to speak my mind, just like my four brothers and sister. My dad stayed on all of us and for him, education mattered the most. Fortunately, I was able to get my degree from the University of Washington. Later, I went on to Cornel for my masters to hone my craft. Still, I had put a lot of my apples into making professional football my career and so, it took a long time to adjust. And I wasn’t the only Black athlete who was forced to leave. For a while, I was teetering on the brink of disaster. But one day, I remember saying, “it’s gone — it’s over. I’m glad that I was able to make that decision. Some of my friends couldn’t and were never the same again.

WI: Wilson’s plays are long productions with a lot of dialogue and complexities. How have you been able to prepare yourself for the roles?

Blanks: People consider August Wilson to be the American Shakespeare — I agree. As a younger actor, I became used to studying and doing classical work in the conservatory. You have to put in the hours. Then, it’s just about doing what you’ve been trained to do and it’s simple: memorizing lines, studying characters, getting into the who, what and why of it all.

I started working with Israel Hicks, a wonderful director, who had a propensity for moving the action. He taught me that much of the action in Wilson’s works swing on your ability to speak and your language facility because August speaks in poetic fashion. But in Wilson, unlike in much earlier classical works, he demands his actors to reach into the reality of how people really spoke in the hood and into our culture while not lingering to develop drama when it wasn’t there. Saying what you meant and meaning what you said. Hicks’ training prepared me to take on any of Wilson’s works and was impossibly wonderful.

I never thought I’d ever want or be able to work with anyone else after Hicks died, until I met Reuben. He’s brilliant. Working with him is like being in a classroom or a seminar. He’s a historian and I take a lot of notes during every rehearsal. He mandates that we speak trippingly on the tongue so the words come out and move the action. That’s a Santiago play — no lag in time or space. That’s also listening to August.

WI: What’s the relevance of “Jitney” for today’s youth?

Blanks: I hope they’ll understand that even though the men in this play appeared to have very little, they were still, basically heroes within their community. They performed a needed service for their people. They were like my own father who never missed a day of work, even when I remember him once really being sick with pneumonia. The men in the play didn’t knock folks in the head, they weren’t addicts. What mattered to them was providing for and protecting their families. That’s the kind of Black men that kept our communities together — they were then and still are the ones who are the true heroes.

Now in its seventh decade, Arena Stage serves a diverse annual audience of more than 300,000. Visit www.arenastage.org for more information.

Dominic Kevin McNeir is an award-winning journalist with more than 25 years of service for the Black Press (NNPA). Prior to moving East to assist his aging parents in their struggles with Alzheimer’s,...

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