André Holland and Carra Patterson
Drive August Wilson’s Jitney onto The Broadway Stage
by Brad Balfour
Before he died in 2005, playwright August Wilson had created the 10-play Pittsburgh Cycle (or Century Cycle) chronicling black American life which spanned over 10 decades. This work is not only Wilson’s benchmark but is a touchstone for fans of great theater and creative writing made in the USA. His insights into black life ring true and offers iconic characters that are forever haunting. Having won two Pulitzers and Tonys, Wilson became recognized not only as the preeminent black playwright but as one of the finest playwrights ever.
Most recently, Wilson’s acclaimed play Fences transitioned from stage to screen with its star Denzel Washington directing the cinematic version, which is currently courting Oscar gold. However, Wilson’s first script, Jitney, was the one play in the cycle that hadn’t had its Broadway debut – until now. Manhattan Theatre Club, long a supporter of Wilson’s work, has mounted a production at its Samuel J. Friedman Theatre in New York City.
The robust and colorful world that is Wilson’s Jitney offers a textured, profound, compelling set of narrative episodes detailing the personal hardships and fractured relationships of several unlicensed jitney drivers working in 1970s Pittsburgh. Threatened by the imminent closure of their garage due to a long-considered neighborhood redo, Wilson’s stunning drama details the complexities of Black masculinity.
Tony Award-winning director, actor and Wilson acolyte Ruben Santiago-Hudson directs this ensemble – Anthony Chisholm (Fielding), Brandon Dirden (Booster), André Holland (Youngblood), Carra Patterson (Rena), Michael Potts (Turnbo), Ray Anthony Thomas (Philmore) and John Douglas Thompson (Becker) – who are some of Broadway’s best.
Within the framework of this testosterone-charged environment, the only real couple featured is that of Youngblood and Rena. Played by seasoned actors André Holland and Carra Patterson, this duo provides a pivotal element at the center of the play that merited detailed examination.
Of course, Holland has been in the spotlight lately for a decidedly different relationship detailed in the Academy Award-nominated indie film Moonlight,” where he introduces its lead character to gay sex. Patterson will soon be on television in the much anticipated scripted series on E!: The Arrangement.
Ahead of its recent January opening, these cast members spoke about Wilson’s legacy, Black masculinity, and this particular time for Black people.
Given that you’re the “young blood” of the play, how did you related to these more senior gentleman?
André Holland: What’s wonderful about it is that all of the characters have so much dignity. Even the one character that I play, who is still young and a bit of a hot-head, he still has a very clear idea what he wants in the world. I really admire and love playing him.
How would you describe your role in the play?
André Holland: We are working at the jitney station in 1977. [My character] comes back from the Vietnam War to carve out a life for himself and his fiancé.
How is it to be in a play with all these men? You’re really the only woman, so does that mean the focus goes to you or do you feel left out?
Carra Patterson: I don’t feel left out at all. I feel honored to be the voice of the black woman’s experience in this world that is August’s. It’s fun just sitting around the table; it’s men bouncing that masculine energy off each other and it’s just fascinating [to see how they behave] when a woman enters. It changes it [when I come in].
André Holland: She definitely changes the atmosphere when she enters the stage.
Have you learned a few things on how to improve your own behavior towards women as a result of playing this character?
André Holland: I myself was raised to know how to treat a woman, even though there is only one woman [here]. What’s fascinating about it is that the men in the play spend an enormous amount of time talking about woman, even though there aren’t any three-dimensional characters on the stage. The women shake these guys’ lives. In a variety of words in every act, we’re talking about a woman…
Given that you’re the younger cast members what was your experience with August Wilson? Did you have a chance to study him, because you don’t necessarily have as many years on him as some of the other cast members do. So what did you learn, what did you gain and how did your perception change in doing this play?
Carra Patterson: I haven’t had much experience. This is my first August Wilson production, but I studied him since I was in high school. He influenced a big decision for me to become an actress. I’ve studied Rena since high school and in college and grad school, so I think I definitely could play the role. It’s an honor [that playing this] role be my first August Wilson play, and that it’s being done on this scale; I feel very blessed.
André Holland: I was in one before; I was in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone on Broadway six, seven years ago. I’ve always loved the play. I’ve read them all but this is my second full production.
How did that play contrast from this one?
André Holland: Though they’re different plays, there’s actually a lot of similarities with the characters or thematically related family community. What does it cost to keep these people together? Urban renewal/revitalization is a big part of this play and that is something that a lot of the other plays [deal with as well].
This is happening in Pittsburgh but you come from the south. How different do you think these men view it from your own experience?
André Holland: It’s not different at all. I grew up in Birmingham, which is an urban setting just like this. Northern centers honestly are very similar to where we are [from], because a lot of them have moved from the south up to northern areas.
How do you two know each other?
Carra Patterson: I’m from Atlanta. We did a play together, so we’ve been friends ever since. So yes, I’m very proud of Andre and Tarell [Alvin McCraney]. It’s so wonderful they’re both working very hard, so I’m excited to see how everything comes together.
Andre mentioned your TV show; can you tell little bit about that…
Carra Patterson: It’s The Arrangement on the E network. It will be out in March next year. It’s coming soon, but yeah, it’s a romantic thriller. I play Shaun, who is a very fashionable lawyer with very strong opinions.
Andre, you’re now getting the media attention for the film Moonlight. Can you talk about that?
André Holland: Yes, I did a movie Moonlight which is written by a friend of Carra’s. We met doing a play. He’s a good friend of both of ours. It’s been a really incredible ride, really incredible. We were at the Gotham Awards recently, which hopefully signals good things to come. The awards are great, the attention is great, but at the end of the day, I think we all just want to make stuff and hopefully that will help that more stuff [gets done].
Why haven’t there been more August Wilson plays made into film?
André Holland: I think that Denzel wants to do all of them. Why they haven’t been started I don’t know, but I think HBO is committed to doing all of them…
What did you learn from your experience doing Moonlight? Was it like or unlike doing plays?
André Holland: People often think there’s a big difference between the two, but there really isn’t. The same [issues are dealt with where it a movie or play in the writing].
This play will also get you a good amount of recognition. How do you feel about awards on general?
André Holland: I honestly don’t care [about them] at all. I don’t give a shit about awards. I do think that it [gives] a lot of respect and recognition to a play. In that case, I do care. But in the case of the film awards, I really don’t.
In the case of this movie, especially after all the discussion, it kills several birds with one stone addressing the gay Black experience, the black experience in general and it being done by an independent film maker. It’s like a trifecta.
André Holland: I hope people don’t see it that way. I hope they just see it as a good piece of art and don’t put on it that it has to represent all these different things. That’s the danger of awards. They do get into this thing, that it takes all the boxes, yet we’re done with that. This movie Moonlight was in process long before [this] August Wilson [production] even started. It wasn’t done in reaction to that; we were working on that for a long time. All people need is an opportunity to put their work out there.
Looking at the August Wilson canon, what do you think makes it so important? Is it that it addressed issues that haven’t yet been addressed? Or is it that it offered a certain look at black lives? Or that it documented a certain social experience…?
André Holland: That’s a big one. Cara, what do you think?
Carra Patterson: That’s pretty personal. It represents a certain part of Pittsburgh shows’ culture. It also shows, to my knowledge, something that hasn’t been done before. It’s all those things. I think people see themselves in this play. Not just black people, but all people respond to the plays.
André Holland: I pretty much agree with what you said…
Where do you think Wilson got this insight?
André Holland: I think that comes through in the honesty of the text. In the community. In the stories of what he had been around. I think that’s what comes through in the words, and that’s why so many people can relate to it. These are people, characters inspired by the world that August was surrounded by in 1977 Pittsburgh.
Your director Ruben Santiago-Hudson has had an incredible history, especially with Wilson. Did you guys know him before this?
Carra Patterson: I knew of him. I had a lot of friends who worked with him and who spoke very highly of him as a director. And obviously I knew of his work as an actor. This is my first time working with him. It’s been wonderful.
André Holland: We worked together last summer in Williamstown. Ruben and I did something together and it was a wonderful experience.
How is it relating to someone who’s an actor and then a director?
André Holland: Well we’ve never acted in anything together, so I only know him as a director. He trusts actors and he gives us our own space.
Why do you think this is the only August Wilson play that has never made it to the Broadway stage until now, despite the fact that it was his first play?
André Holland: It’s about damn time. I first saw the play 15 years ago in London. After I saw it, I said, “Why has this not been seen?!” Every six months or so I write my agent and say, “Hey, what about Jitney?” I’d write letters to the National Theatre and say, “Hey! Why don’t y’all bring it over here?” So, I’m just grateful, especially when I see people like Anthony Chisholm and Ruben Santiago-Hudson [involved]. These are legends, so I’m grateful to be a part of it.
Youngblood is this amazing character. He exists in this world between the old school and the new which is why he and Rena have this tension that runs throughout the play. How did you approach this role?
André Holland: We’re still in the early days of rehearsal, but that is one of the things that I am trying to understand about Youngblood. He is of this new generation. He’s of the new voice. I love him. I think he has just so much to say even about who we are as a people, regarding where we are today. He’s a guy who has gone to serve his country in Vietnam. He comes back to work two and three jobs, just trying to make it and piece it together. And he’s doing it without complaint. He’s just doing it. It’s people like that who I grew up around; hardworking, blue collar, go-to-work-everyday black people, ones whose backs this country was built on.
André Holland: It’s time that we hear from them. I think that August Wilson illuminates them better than anyone I know.
Carra, you play Rena, the only woman in Jitney. What was that like for you, to get that call for the role? And what drew you to it?
Carra Patterson: I’ve studied Rena since I was a teenager. Since I first decided to become an actor. It’s the one August Wilson… His writing has so many beautiful, black, strong female characters, but Rena is the one who I felt closest to. I think it’s because she’s one of the younger of his women. Being a young teenager, it was easy for me to relate to her experience. I felt very close to this character for years. When I heard Jitney was headed to Broadway, I was making as many phone calls as I could. I just felt like I have to just try to be a part of this. There were a lot of women who were fighting to get their hands on it as well, but I was just like, “I want to see how close I could get [to her]. It would just be an honor even to get close.” I feel very blessed to be able to play this part and bring it to life on Broadway.
Rena is able to break into this male space and connect with Youngblood. It’s so interesting that they want the same things, even though they go about it differently. What did you think about the dynamic between them?
Carra Patterson: Just on a very surface level, when you have eight men in one room, all of that masculine energy bouncing off of that space, it changes when she enters just because of the simple fact that she is female. But also to me, Rena is the one who has it the most together…
She really does.
Carra Patterson: That’s just life, and I think a lot of women will be able to relate to that. We’re always just a couple of steps ahead of our men, typically. (laughs) It can take them awhile to get on the same page. That’s a very human thing. And that’s what I love about August Wilson. He just cuts right to the heart of it for the men.
Carra, what other August Wilson plays would you like to do? Have you done other plays from this cycle?
Carra Patterson: This is my first August Wilson. I’ve studied Rena a lot, but I’ve only ever done it in acting classes, where you only get to do one scene from it and get notes. I’ve never done a full August Wilson production. I’m nervous, but I’m surrounded by such awesome actors. Some of them have done all ten, so I feel like I’m in good hands.
Jitney is set at a particular moment for black people in the ‘70s. Rena has options that Rose from Fences, or some of the other women from earlier plays in the cycle do not. What does that mean to you?
Carra Patterson: I think August Wilson wrote Jitney first because it was probably closest to him at the time, even though it fell later in the cycle. It’s also appropriate that it is being debuted last on Broadway. But, I do think Rena does represent that shift that was taking place in that era. Women were working more. It was more of a team effort that we both do what it takes to keep the home running. It’s not just he just goes out and brings home the bacon. It’s not like Rose and her set up with Troy in Fences. It’s this new way of living and being. Rena is working and going to school, and they both need to work together. She wants to be a part of them building their life and buying a home together. But, [Youngblood] wants it to be the old school way. I think it’s this new way. Society is still shifting and changing as far as figuring out what our roles are in the home. So, I think it’s very timely…
What was the most pivotal moment of the play for you?
Carra Patterson: Personally, it was the ending. The final moment. I don’t want to give it away, but it’s that moment. The whole play is beautiful. You don’t really know what’s coming. But the final moment in the play, even just hearing it read; it always takes my breath away. That is most profound to me.
Copyright ©2017 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: February 3, 2017.
Photos © 2017 Brad Balfour. All rights reserved.