Our text today took us to a 1970s jitney station in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where a husband and wife (Darnell and Rena) discuss a recent surprise home purchase. The excerpt from Act 2, Scene 1 of the play Jitney by August Wilson, was read by two different pairs of readers without stage directions, so they “performed” solely through dialogue. We began our exploration of the exchange by asking who is present in this conversation beyond Darnell and Rena, the two characters who actually speak. There are quite a few, including a child named Jesse, Darnell’s friends Ba Bra and Earl, someone named Peaches, and Rena’s mother. One participant noted that each of them influence the dynamics between the two speakers. Others commented that Darnell also refers to his old self, so the past Darnell also becomes a factor in the present day. Beyond those other characters, we thought about whether gender roles are at play. One person saw a male aspect to the way Darnell seemed to be seeking affirmation with his grand gesture, trying to win Rena’s approval but coming up short – again. Some of us found the conversation uncomfortable to hear and wondered if Rena was being too hard on Darnell, while others thought Darnell’s gift of the home was actually for himself rather than for Rena. We commented on how the two have different desires: Rena focused on practical concerns like whether the yard has a fence, while Darnell imagined how nice it would be to have a den in the basement. We picked up on the subtext in the conversation, which was about more than just the house but about their entire relationship; we had the feeling these two people have had this same discussion many times before.
Participants wrote for 5 minutes to the prompt, “Write about slipping” (inspired by Rena’s last line: “I know people change…but I know they can slip back too”). Five readers shared their work, and everyone had a chance to respond. The one reader reflected on “Unpacking this year and all the disturbing things…what has happened to the world? What has happened to my world?” As the narrator situates herself in space and time, she does so with a sense of exploration (and a tropical beverage). Another reader also explored memory, but in extreme conditions of another sort: “Montreal is cold…Not once, twice, but thrice — slipped on ice. Canada is free, but frozen.” The group appreciated the humor, and drew connections between the good intentions of the husband in the writing and Youngblood in Jitney. We were intrigued by a reader describing how a slip tests both friction and gravity, where metaphorical back stairs “permit myriad sins, not all even pleasurable but rather necessary, filling in holes from the past that you’re supposed to pretend don’t even exist but – if you do that – they chew out your entrails like a fox.” One reader crafted her inquisitive position with alliteration (“Curable inmates: what do they wake up to? Slipping into wakefulness has poisoned their minds…constantly conscious careful”). This reminded one participant of patients in an ICU. Lastly, one writer’s piece clipped along with conversational energy and conflict with much like what plays out in Jitney: “It’s so damn easy to judge, isn’t it?…Don’t throw a stone, unless you’ve never broken a promise.” An overarching theme to the discussion of the scene and subsequent writing was bias — how it shows up, plays out, and is mitigated (or not) by reflection and communication.
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We will be breaking with our usual schedule next week in honor of Labor Day on Monday September 7th. Please join us for our next session Wednesday, September 9th at 12pm EDT, with more times listed on our Live Virtual Group Sessions page.
From “Jitney” by August Wilson New York: The Overlook Press, 2001.
YOUNGBLOOD: You want to know what I was hiding from you? I’ll tell you. I been hustling … working day and night … while you accuse me of running the streets … and all I’m trying to do is save enough money so I can buy a house so you and Jesse have someplace decent to live. I asked Peaches if she would go with me to look at houses, cause I wanted to surprise you. I wanted to pull a truck up to the house and say, “Come on, baby, we moving.” And drive on out to Penn Hills and pull that truck up in front of one of them houses and say, “This is yours. This is your house baby.” That’s what she was trying to hide from you. That’s why Turnbo seen her riding in my car all the time. I found a house and I come up a hundred and fifty dollars short from closing the deal, and I come and took the eighty dollars out the drawer.
RENA: A house? A house, Darnell? You bought a house without me!
YOUNGBLOOD: I wanted to surprise you.
RENA: You gonna surprise me with a house? Don’t do that. A new TV maybe. A stereo … a couch … a refrigerator … okay. But don’t surprise me with a house that I didn’t even have a chance to pick out! That’s what you been doing? That’s the debt you had to pay?
YOUNGBLOOD: You always saying you don’t want to live your whole life in the projects.
RENA: Darnell, you ain’t bought no house without me. How many times in your life do you get to pick out a house?
YOUNGBLOOD: Wait till you see it. It’s real nice. It’s all on one floor … it’s got a basement … like a little den. We can put the TV down there. I told myself Rena’s gonna like this. Wait till she see I bought her a house.
RENA: Naw, you bought a den for Darnell … that’s what you did. So you can sit down there and watch your football games. But what about the kitchen? The bathroom? How many windows does it have in the bedroom? Is there some place for Jesse to play? How much closet space does it have? You can’t just surprise me with a house and I’m supposed to say, “Oh, Darnell, that’s nice.” At one time I would have. But I’m not seventeen no more. I have responsibilities. I want to know if it has a hookup for a washer and dryer cause I got to wash Jesse’s clothes. I want to know if it has a yard and do it have a fence and how far Jesse has to go to school. I ain’t thinking about where to put the TV. That’s not what’s important to me. And you supposed to know, Darnell. You supposed to know what’s important to me like I’m supposed to know what’s important to you. I’m not asking you to do it by yourself. I’m here with you. We in this together. See … house or no house we still ain’t got the food money. But if you had come and told me … if you had shared that with me … we could have went to my mother and we could have got eighty dollars for the house and still had money for food. You just did it all wrong, Darnell. I mean, you did the right thing but you did it wrong.
YOUNGBLOOD: No matter what I do it’s gonna come out wrong with you. That’s why you jump to conclusions. That’s why you accused me of running around with Peaches. You can’t look and see that I quit going to parties all the time … that I quit running with Ba Bra and Earl … that I quit chasing women. You just look at me and see the old Darnell. If you can’t change the way you look at me … then I may as well surrender now. I can’t beat your memory of who I was if you can’t see I’ve changed. I go out here and work like a dog to try and do something nice for you and no matter what I do, I can’t never do it right cause all you see is the way I used to be. You don’t see the new Darnell. You don’t see I’ve changed.
RENA: I know people change … but I know they can slip back too.