In the garage of a house in San Francisco’s Excelsior district, rehearsal is underway. In the space where a car would normally go is a stage set: a table and chairs, a desk, a beat-up blue couch, and an old-fashioned pay phone hanging from a wall.
Two men sit at the table, playing checkers and arguing good-naturedly.
This is a rehearsal of “Jitney,” by preeminent black playwright August Wilson. The play is set in 1970s Pittsburgh, and focuses on a group of gypsy cab drivers in a working-class black neighborhood where regular cabs refuse to go. It is part of Wilson’s celebrated 10-play Pittsburgh cycle, which captures 100 years of African-American life through each decade of the 20th century.
This production of “Jitney” is by Multi Ethnic Theater. Founder and director Lewis Campbell says the troupe’s mission is “to provide opportunities to actors of color and women that traditional theater does not normally provide.”
While most of the actors he works with are actors of color, Campbell himself is white.
The idea for Multi Ethnic Theater started back in the 1970s when Campbell was teaching at Mission High School. He wanted to produce a play called “Fuenteovejuna” by Lope de Vega, a Spanish contemporary of Shakespeare.
“I decided that I would do it in both English and Spanish,” Campbell says. “I needed actors who could do both.”
That wasn’t as easy as it sounds. Campbell had to go to the soccer team to find actors who spoke both languages. The play was a success, eventually touring to other schools and colleges.
Campbell named his fledgling theater group Ethnic Theater Workshop, but he says one day a student stopped him in the hall to ask about that name.
“He was a white student,” Campbell recalls. “And he asked me, ‘Hey Mr. Campbell, I’d like to be a part of your theater program, but am I ethnic?’ I looked at him and said, ‘Am I ethnic? Yeah, we’re both ethnic.’ So from then on I changed the name to Multi Ethnic Theater.”
As a high school teacher, Campbell honed his skills at diversifying Multi Ethnic Theater’s productions. When he retired, he brought those ideas to adult actors.
“There’s no such thing as color-blind casting,” says Campbell. “You cannot close your eyes when you audition actors. But you can do color-creative casting, which means re-thinking roles, so that roles normally assigned to men can be played by women, and roles traditionally assigned to an all-white cast can be done by a multi-ethnic cast.”
An all-black “Jitney”
While most of the troupe’s productions have featured actors from multiple ethnicities, “Jitney” features an all-black cast.
“I was asked by one of my white actors, ‘Do you balance the season with a play by an all-white cast?’” Campbell says. “My answer to that is, 'No.' Because our mission is to provide opportunities where they don’t exist. And there are plenty of opportunities for white actors.”
Stuart Elwyn Hall plays Shealy, one of the drivers in “Jitney”. He says there are simply not enough roles for African-American actors. After being involved with theater for close to 40 years, he’s still frustrated by how few black plays are produced.
“I was speaking with another member of the cast a couple days ago -- and we both agree, if we hear 'Raisin in the Sun' one more time, we’re going to scream,” Hall says with a laugh. “Because that’s one of the tried-and-true that’s brought out every other year, on Broadway, Off-Broadway, wherever.”
Hall says that’s one of the reasons he enjoys doing August Wilson: “because his plays are so well-written, and so indicative of a very dynamic part of the black experience.”
Hall first worked with Lewis Campbell four years ago, on another August Wilson play. He says he initially had some reservations about working with a white director on a black play.
“I thought at the time that it would be difficult for someone of Caucasian descent, to understand … the thought processes behind African American drama,” Hall says. “And to be able to understand it in a way that’s not sounding like … an anthropologist, someone from National Geographic looking at the black folks, and ‘Oh, look at these primitive folks, they do theater too.’”
Since those first days, he’s come around. But that doesn’t mean cultural differences don’t exist.
“I’ve found that we’ve had to educate Lewis from time to time as to why we do certain things, or why our character would do certain things,” Hall says.
Campbell gets it. He’s run into this kind of skepticism before.
“You had to be black to direct black plays, you had to be Latino to direct Latino theater,” says Campbell. “But I can recall that in England, the perception was that you had to be British to direct Shakespeare.”
An American Shakespeare
The reference to Shakespeare is not coincidental: Campbell, like many American theater critics, says August Wilson is “the Shakespeare of our day.”
“What Shakespeare did was to take the language of the people and to regularize it enough so that it had a poetic feel. And that’s what August Wilson does,” says Campbell.
Actor Stuart Elwyn Hall agrees.
“You know, everyone that attended a [Shakespeare] play … could find something of himself or herself in the characters onstage. Well, the same thing I think with August Wilson,” says Hall.
The same thing applies to all of Multi Ethnic Theater’s productions: finding something of yourself on the stage, and finding common ground through theater.
"Jitney" runs through August 31 at the Gough Street Playhouse. Multi Ethnic Theater plans to put on the remaining six plays in August Wilson’s decalogue cycle every August (“August in August”) for the next six years.