Sala Udin reprises role he originated in August Wilson's 'Jitney'

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"Car service."

Those words are synonymous with jitneys, the private taxis still operating in Pittsburgh's black neighborhoods -- neighborhoods that white-owned cab companies ignored for years.

They are also the frequent refrain in August Wilson's "Jitney," his first two-act drama and the foundation play in his 10-drama cycle of the 20th century. In fact, the play's closing line is, "car service."

In the late 1960s, Mr. Wilson and friends Rob Penny and Sala Udin would gather regularly at a fish sandwich shop on Wylie Avenue in the Hill District discussing their plans for Pittsburgh's pioneering African-American theater, Black Horizons. Next door was a jitney stand.

'Jitney'

Where: Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company, 521 Penn Ave., Downtown.

When: Saturday through May 30. 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays.

Tickets: $22.50; $35 for Saturday's opening-night performance and reception. 412-394-3353 or www.proartstickets.org.

"August used to arrive early for our get-togethers," recalled Mr. Udin, "so he'd hang around at the jitney stand listening to guys talk about stuff, like their conquests with women or their skill at sports. He loved their sense of humor, their jokes and their wonderful stories about the old days in the Hill.

"Then, after he left Pittsburgh, he let me know he had written a play about those places and wanted me to play the lead role," he said during an interview at a car service office near Centre Avenue and Kirkpatrick Street in the Hill. "I think because of those conversations August remembered, 'Jitney' is his funniest play, probably the closest it comes to a comedy."

The play, set in 1977, had its premiere in Pittsburgh in late 1982 with Mr. Udin as Becker, the proprietor of the jitney stand, an older man well-established in the community. Bob Johnson, also a choreographer, directed at a performance space in Oakland near the Pittsburgh Playhouse, according to Mr. Udin.

Saturday, he reprises that role when the Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre presents the play, directed by Mark Clayton Southers, the Playwrights Theatre founder, who intends to stage all of Mr. Wilson's works.

"I had to make my hair gray and wear false spectacles to play Becker then. Now, I don't need any makeup to do it. I kind of grew into the role," laughed the 67-year-old former Pittsburgh city councilman.

His acting and office-holding days are behind him, Mr. Udin insists, but he came out of retirement for "Jitney." He's also played in the Wilson plays "Two Trains Running," "Ma Rainey," "Fences" and "The Piano Lesson."

He's currently president and chief executive officer of the city office of the Coro Center for Civic Leadership.

Forty years ago the Hill was reeling after major upheavals from the city's massive demolition of homes, shops, restaurants and houses of worship to the devastating riots of April 1968 following the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

The changes made their mark on Mr. Penny, a poet who went on to become an established playwright with the Kuntu Repertory Theater, Mr. Wilson and Mr. Udin. For the writers, the decline of Pittsburgh's lively African-American community influenced their politically charged work.

For Mr. Udin, it meant a change of scenery. Shortly after "Jitney" closed, he moved to San Francisco for a job at a multicultural job training center.

"When the URA continued to demolish our neighborhoods and never keep its promise to rebuild, it demolished our hopes and dreams for the Hill," Mr. Udin said. "That was the story of the 1970s. The contrast between then and now is pretty stark. These days, new housing is getting built."

Shortly after the play opens, Becker tells the drivers that the building with their office and a restaurant, unsurprisingly a fish sandwich shop, will be torn down, forcing them to scramble for new positions.

As this crisis pops up, Becker is confronted with another -- the release from prison of his son, Booster, who had served 20 years for killing his white girlfriend, who had accused him of rape. The two are estranged over the crime.

"What August was telling us about was this profound hope that black men had in the future for their sons and how this hope was frequently disappointed," said Mr. Udin, who lost a son five years ago to street violence.

"The play is certainly about the anger from that disappointment for Becker, but underneath is love, too," the actor said.

"Jitney" also recognizes that opportunities for young black men in the late 1970s were more plentiful that they were for their fathers. In the play, the character Youngblood, a Vietnam veteran, is able to buy a house in Penn Hills for his family, escaping the decline of the Hill.

"Make something of your life. You can be anything you want," he is told by an older driver. "Like I tell my boys, the world's opened up for you."

"Jitney" is the first work of a great playwright in his formative years. It lacks the tragic depth of Mr. Wilson's later explorations of slavery's pervasive damage but crackles with his characteristic conversations and insight.

With Sala Udin reviving his original role, this production returns us to the moment when one of America's leading playwrights found his voice.


Bob Hoover: 412-263-1634 or bhoover@post-gazette.com .


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