24 February 2017


Until two weeks ago, I had seen eight of August Wilson’s ten Century Cycle plays.  Up till then, I’d missed the last one he wrote, Radio Golf, the play that covers the last decade in the century and was completed in 2005, the year it premièred at the Yale Repertory Theatre, and the first cycle play the dramatist composed, 1982’s Jitney, the play that covers the 1970’s and the only one of the decalogue that hadn’t been presented on Broadway before now.  But on Friday night, 10 February, I met my frequent theater companion, Diana, at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre in the Theatre District to see the Manhattan Theatre Club’s revival of Wilson’s play.

Directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, who’s staged or appeared in many of Wilson’s Pittsburgh plays, MTC’s Jitney began previews at the company’s Broadway, and Tony-eligible, house on West 47th Street on 28 December 2016 and opened on 19 January  2017.  The run is scheduled to close on 12 March.  According to his introduction to the special edition of the play text published this year (Overlook Press) to mark the Broadway première, Santiago-Hudson explained that two weeks before the playwright died in October 2005, he asked the director “to bring Jitney to Broadway.”  The director proclaimed:

There had been nine jewels placed in August Wilson’s formidable crown, each had changed the landscape of Broadway in their respective seasons.  Until now, only one gem was missing.  With the production of Jitney at the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel Friedman Theatre the final gem is in place.

Wilson (1945-2005) wrote Jitney in 1979 and it received its first production at the small Allegheny Repertory Theatre in Pittsburgh, the playwright’s hometown, in 1982.  (The story is that Wilson and his mother arrived at the opening performance in an actual jitney.)  The Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul, Minnesota, presented a one-act version in 1984 independently of the earlier mounting.  In 1996, Wilson rewrote the play extensively for what was essentially its second première at the Pittsburgh Public Theater, directed by Marion McClinton—the first major Century Cycle première that wasn’t directed by the late Lloyd Richards, Wilson’s principal collaborator.  During the next four years, Jitney was produced nationwide in dozens of theaters, such as the Crossroads Theatre in New Brunswick, New Jersey (1997), and Boston’s Huntington Theatre Company (1998).  Wilson continued to revise the play occasionally and it came to New York City, opening Off-Broadway at the Second Stage Theatre on 25 April 2000, winning the 2000-2001 Outer Critics’ Circle Award for Outstanding Off-Broadway Play.  It closed on 10 September and moved to the Union Square Theater on 19 September 2000 for a commercial run until 28 January 2001 (2000 Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Play for August Wilson; 2001 Lucille Lortel nomination for Outstanding Play).  The play opened in London at the National Theatre’s Lyttelton Theatre, running from 16 October through 21 November 2001, winning the Olivier Award for best play of the year. 

After the Crossroads and Huntington Theatre presentations, CenterStage in Baltimore, the Studio Arena in Buffalo, the GeVa Theatre in Rochester, New York, and the Goodman Theatre in Chicago staged the play in 1999; Los Angeles’s Mark Taper Forum presented it in 2000; the Studio Theatre in Washington, D.C., presented it in 2001; the Denver Center for the Performing Arts in 2002; Ford’s Theatre, Washington, D.C., in 2007; and the Kennedy Center, Washington, D.C., in 2008—among many others around the world.  Ruben Santiago-Hudson, director of the MTC Broadway première, staged a production in 2012 at the Two River Theater Company in Red Bank, New Jersey; the cast included Anthony Chisholm, who also appears, in the same role, in this mounting.

When Wilson, born Frederick August Kittel, Jr., in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, wrote Jitney, he hadn’t conceived of  the Century Cycle of the African-American experience in the United States through the 20th century.  He always knew he wanted to be a writer, and educated himself at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Library after dropping out of high school in 10th grade.  He particularly favored the works of Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, Arna Bontemps, and other black authors.  He went on to add Argentine poet Jorge Luis Borges, playwright Amiri Baraka, and writers Ed Bullins and James Baldwin to his reading repertoire and he discovered the music of the blues, especially Bessie Smith, jazz, spurred by hearing John Coltrane in his home neighborhood, and hip-hop, which Wilson called “the spiritual fist of the [black] culture”; the art of Romare Bearden; and the political ideas of Malcolm X.  After the 1965 death of his father, a German immigrant from Czechoslovakia, the nascent writer adopted his mother’s maiden name, Wilson. 

After years of working in menial jobs, including janitor, porter, short-order cook, gardener, and dishwasher, Wilson started writing, sitting in bars and other public spaces where he observed the people of his neighborhood who would become his characters and absorbed their language.  But he was writing poetry at this time.  He helped found the Black Horizon Theater in the Hill District in 1968 and wrote his first play, Recycling, in 1973.  Other plays followed in the ’70s and early ’80s, one of which was Jitney.  Then he conceived of his magnum opus (though, I suspect he didn’t think of it that way at the time), the cycle of plays recounting the black American experience in the 20th century, one play dedicated to each decade of the period. 

After Wilson began what became known as his Century Cycle or Pittsburgh Cycle (a misnomer since one play isn’t set in Pittsburgh), starting in 1982 with Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (the only one of the 10 not to be set in the Hill District), Wilson extensively revised Jitney for its 1996 second première and fit it into the cycle as the eighth play in the series.  (It’s the only play of the 10 that was actually written in the decade it covers.)  The playwright continued to compose work outside the cycle, including his last piece, the autobiographical How I Learned What I Learned (2002), a solo performance piece he planned to perform for the Signature Theatre Company’s season devoted to Wilson’s work in 2006-07.  (Signature’s Wilson season, the only one it’s devoted to a non-living playwright, came to fruition after the dramatist’s death, but without the monologue; Ruben Santiago-Hudson, director of the Broadway staging of Jitney, stood in for Wilson in How I Learned at Signature’s mounting of that monodrama in 2013.) 

Wilson, who died of liver cancer on 2 October 2005 (age 60), finished the last play he wrote for his decalogue, Radio Golf, in 2005 and saw it premièred at the Yale Repertory Theatre but didn’t survive to see it open on Broadway in 2007.  Fourteen days after his death, on 16 October 2005, the Virginia Theatre on Broadway, owned by Jujamcyn Theaters, was renamed in his honor, one of the few Broadway houses named for a writer and the first to be named for an African-American. 

Overall, August Wilson’s a magnificent prose poet, with rhythms redolent of his influence from blues, which the writer calls, “My greatest influence . . . because I think the blues is the best literature that we as black Americans have,” and jazz, which gave Wilson the improvisational quality of his scripts.  He makes his characters street poets and he takes from collagist Bearden “the fullness and richness of everyday ritual . . . rendered without compromise or sentimentality.”  He’s not good with plot, however, and he needs an editor: Wilson’s said he tries “to make my plays the equal of [Bearden’s] canvases.”

In creating plays I often use the image of a stewing pot in which I toss various things that I’m going to make use ofa black cat, a garden, a bicycle, a man with a scar on his face, a pregnant woman, a man with a gun.  Then I assemble the pieces into a cohesive whole guided by history and anthropology and architecture and my own sense of aesthetic statement.

In a quotation I jotted down from a wall panel at an exhibit of his work back in 2011, Bearden said: “The function of the artist is to organize the facts of life according to his imagination.”  This seems particularly applicable to August Wilson’s dramaturgy, especially in light of the assessment of the Village Voice’s Michael Feingold: “He just didn’t bother to contrive and manipulate as a way of narrating those destinies.  His sense of life was too powerful—perhaps too overpowering—for him to bother with that.”  His characters, nonetheless, are actors’ dreams and his language is delicious.  
The decalogue is truly a magnificent achievement by any measure.  In a New York Times column about Wilson’s cycle, Ben Brantley pronounced that the series “will be remembered as one of the great achievements of the American theater, a work unrivaled by any contemporary in its expansive scale and richness of voice.”  Nine of Wilson’s cycle plays were mounted on Broadway over 23 years, an accomplishment neither David Mamet nor Tom Stoppard matched, according to the Times’ Jason Zinoman.  Critical acclaim was nearly unanimous for every staging—though there was also common criticism for the author’s haphazard and overburdened plotting, wordiness, and digressions.  All of the nine Broadway productions were nominated for Tony Award, though Fences is the only one that won (twice: both in 1987 for the première and in 2010 for the revival). 

The 10 plays aren’t strictly connected like, say, Alan Ayckbourn’s Norman Conquests or Richard Nelson’s Apple Family Plays, but some characters or their descendents appear in more than one; Seven Guitars, set in 1948, and King Hedley II, set in 1985, are the only two plays that are specifically linked.  Nonetheless, Wilson’s plays have “many storytelling elements in common,” according to Erik Piepenburg, senior staff editor on the New York Times:

[T]they almost all took place in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, the playwright’s hometown; they bracingly examined issues of racism, friendship, romance and memory; the shadow of slavery was ever-present, if sparingly depicted; and they were also vibrantly distinct in their settings, ambitions and theatrical destinations.

Remarkably, Wilson creates the world of all this life in microcosmic places: the backyard of a Hill District house, a living room, the musicians’ band room of a recording studio,  a luncheonette, a car-service station. 

Regular taxi cabs won’t travel to the Pittsburgh Hill District of the 1970s, and so the residents turn to jitneys—unofficial, unlicensed taxi cabs (which we know as “gypsy cabs” in New York City)—that operate in the community.  Jitney, set in 1977 during a period of “urban renewal” in Pittsburgh, depicts the lives of the car-service drivers at the run-down jitney station, complete with junk cars outside, owned by Becker (John Douglas Thompson) as the city shuts down businesses and tears down whole blocks, including the car-service dispatch office, to make way for new buildings.  There are five jitney drivers struggling to survive out of Becker’s station: the boss, Youngblood (André Holland, who gives a highly praised performance in the current film Moonlight), Turnbo (Michael Potts), Fielding (Anthony Chisholm, a veteran of the 2000 Second Stage production), and Doub (Keith Randolph Smith).  The impending gentrification will put all of them, as well as many of their neighboring business-owners and their employees, out of work.

Youngblood, a veteran of Vietnam, and his girlfriend Rena (Carra Patterson), have a two-year-old son named Jesse.  In the past, Youngblood—the name almost feels too on-the-nose, but it seems that this was a nickname the playwright himself acquired in his youth—has cheated on Rena, and now Rena thinks Youngblood is again being unfaithful—this time with her sister, because he disappears at times during the day and night, and also because, without explanation, he’s been taking the money they were saving for food.  Finally, when Rena confronts him angrily, he reveals that he’s been going around with Rena’s sister to shop for a new house for himself, Rena, and Jesse.  Rena, however, remains angry at Youngblood because he bought the house without getting her approval.

Becker’s son, Booster (Brandon J. Dirden), is released from prison, where he’s been incarcerated 20 years for murdering his girlfriend, who’d falsely claimed that he’d raped her.  (Just to put this in fuller context: the woman was white and her father wouldn’t have tolerated the relationship.  Let’s also recall that this would have been in the mid-’50s, about the time that Mildred and Richard Loving were arrested in Virginia for miscegenation and 10 years before Loving v. Virginia.)  When he shows up at the jitney dispatch office, he finds that his father, who never visited him in prison, is deeply disappointed not just that his son is a murderer, but that Booster doesn’t see what he did as wrong.  He and his father argue, and his father turns his back on him and walks out.  

Turnbo is older than the other drivers and is aggravated by the behavior of younger folks, especially  hotheaded Youngblood, whom Turnbo—who keeps a pistol in his car—delights in antagonizing.  Fielding, who used to be a tailor (he made suits for Billy Ekstine and Count Basie), is a drunk unsuccessfully fighting against his urge to swig from the pint he always has in his pocket—even though Becker has threatened to fire him if he continues.  Doub, the man of reason and wisdom, is a Korean War vet—the former warrior who keeps the peace.  When he gets tired of hearing his fellow drivers blame the white man for all their bad fortunes, he instructs them, “That white man ain’t paying you no mind. . . .  Hell, they don’t even know you alive.”

Under Becker’s leadership, the drivers and the other business-owners in the neighborhood decide to organize in the face of the threatened demolition.  They plan to stay put and defy the evictors; Becker calls a meeting for the evening.  But he’s been called to the mill where he used to work to help fill in when they came up short-handed.  When an accident at the mill kills him (off stage, between scenes), the drivers all assemble at the station to mourn their friend and employer, and Booster, who hadn’t heard the news, shows up looking for his father.  After the funeral, they all return to the station as if they didn’t know where else to go, and Booster instinctively answers the ringing phone: “Car service!” he says—as if he were taking over where his father left off.

MTC’s production of Jitney is terrific.  It’s August Wilson’s first play in the cycle (and his fourth script overall), so it’s a tyro effort and it shows all his faults very clearly—a diffuse plot that meanders and never congeals; scenes and moments that, while wonderful little vignettes, are digressions; characters that don’t really become part of the ensemble.  It’s also 2½ hours long.  The poetry of his dialogue isn’t fully developed yet, so the language doesn’t quite soar the way it does in later plays in the decalogue.  (It’s still pretty damn “actable.”)  But the characters are magnificent portraits, each distinct and fully drawn.  (Brantley of the Times noted of the characters that “it is remarkable how much we learn about each of them within two and a half hours.”)  Aaron Frankel, one of my acting teachers, would call them “juicy” roles—the kind actors really love to play.

As you can probably tell from my synopsis above, there really isn’t a plot in Jitney.  The events of the play are beads, and the string, as tenuous as it is, is the coming demolishment of the block of buildings that includes the cab station, reminiscent of Madame Ranevskaya’s cherry trees in Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard.  When Booster comes into the station to reunite with Becker at the end of act one, it looks as if a narrative is about to be initiated, but when act two begins, it’s clear that was a false impression.  Even the proposed action to fight the demolition and impending gentrification peters out as a through-line since it comes so near the end of the play and then Becker, the motivating force for the demonstration, dies precipitously.  Maybe Booster, who signals he’s ready to assume his father’s mantle when he answers the dispatch office’s pay phone, will take up this fight—but we don’t know that and the play ends long before Booster or anybody else can be anointed Becker’s successor.  So we’re left with a string of pearls, lustrous and intriguing though they are, vibrant with Wilson’s depiction of life in the Hill District that does recall a series of Bearden collages brought to life, but they’re snapshots, not stories.

The characters, too, are tenuously held together.  They’re connected, aside from their common residence in the Hill District, by their association with the jitney service and, in the physical sense, their attachment to the station, which in David Gallo’s set is a sort of island of life isolated from the outside world which is only glimpsed through sooty widows and the quickly opened door as someone enters or leaves.  (The backdrop is composed of blown-up photos, some historical and some taken by the designer, to create a collage of Hill District buildings, inspired by Romare Bearden.  Gallo, who also designed the 2000 Off-Broadway production of Jitney, developed his concept of the set from conversations then with Wilson, in which the two “spent a lot of time talking about what this place is, and what it was.”)  Not only is the streetscape outside the station barely visible, as if seen through etched glass, there’s no life going on out there except the occasional arrival or departure of one of the characters from the station.  Within the station, though, the life of the play is so magnificently limned, so palpably drawn, that it brings the theatrical portrait to life for a nearly sublime two hours and thirty minutes that never lags.

The characters who aren’t drivers are least tied to the action, particularly Shealy (Harvy Blanks, who’s played in all 10 of Wilson’s cycle plays), the numbers runner who uses the dispatch office’s phone to take bets, and Booster, whose significance to the play is telegraphed but never develops.  Shealy’s appearances seem to do little more than affirm that folks in the Hill District play the numbers and Booster exists as a flesh-and-blood character pretty much only so he can pick up the phone at the end of the play; otherwise both characters could be implied by dialogue.  If Wilson weren’t such a fabulous creator of characters for the stage (meaning, for actors to inhabit), they’d be throw-aways.  They are, however, like the other denizens of the Hill District, of part of that Beardenian view of the blues-infused world Wilson saw.  The acting in Santiago-Hudson’s Jitney is so good that there needs to be a “best ensemble” Tony for this cast.  (The Obies have one and the Drama Desks have one as a special award; the Screen Actors Guild Awards also have ensemble categories for both film and TV.  The Tonys don’t.)

There’s no star role in Jitney, a dominant figure like Troy Maxson in Fences.  The closest Jitney comes to such a unifying character is John Douglas Thompson’s Becker, who holds the ensemble together not just because he employs most of them, but because he, alone, has some kind of relationship—sometimes tenuous, granted—with each of the others.  (Diana and I saw Thompson, who has a reputation as a top-flight classical actor, as Thorwald Helmer in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and Captain Adolf in Strindberg’s The Father at Theatre for a New Audience last June.  My report, “TFANA’s Scandinavian Rep,” was posted on 13 June 2016.)  Though Becker runs the car service according to specific rules and policies he’s laid down for the drivers, Thompson plays him as something of a soft touch—he can be gotten ’round.  Except, it seems, by his ex-con son, for whom Becker shows no sympathy—as far as we can know, since Becker dies before much can change in that relationship. 

Two other roles stand out in the Jitney ensemble, Doub, played by  Keith Randolph Smith, and Michael Potts’s Turnbo.  It’s not so much the quality of Smith’s and Potts’s performances that make these characters salient here—all the actors do equally terrific turns—but the prominence of their characters.  Thompson is the man of compassion, as compared to Doub as the man of reason, but sterner than Thompson’s Becker.  Still Smith, a big man who looks like he could crush any of the rest of the men without a lot of effort, gives the air of a giant who’s not so much gentle as one who very carefully picks his fights.  Potts, a much less likeable person as Turnbo, behaves like a man who just can’t help sticking his nose in other people’s affairs.  (Turnbo provokes Youngblood until the younger driver turns on him in rage and then Turnbo runs to grab the gun he keeps in his car.  Turnbo’s also the one who informs Rena that her sister’s been riding around in her boyfriend’s car, deliberately implying that Youngblood’s being unfaithful again.)  “I just talk what I know,” he insists, and Potts made me believe Turnbo believes it.  I should also make mention of the strong, passionate connections actors Thompson and Dirden, Potts and Holland, and Holland and Patterson create between their characters.

For the rest, Wilson, Santiago-Hudson, and the actors give each character a serious flaw—short-tempered Youngblood, alcoholic Fielding, hard-hearted Rena—but imbue them all with such sympathy and even warmth that I rooted for each of them to come through the deprivations being visited on Jimmy Carter-era Pittsburgh.  The actors never let me feel any of them was beyond hope, not even unrepentant Booster, who may have come around in the end to realize what he’d done.  As Ben Brantley wrote in his New York Times review, the 2017 Broadway première of this 1979 play now seems to be “not only saying that black lives matter; but also that black life matters.”  In large part, that Trump-era resonance is due to Santiago-Hudson’s directing and the cast’s performances.

Santiago-Hudson, a dab hand at Wilson’s work now (as an actor—Seven Guitars, Gem of the Ocean, How I Learned What I Learned—and director—Seven Guitars, The Piano Lesson—and even a little as a writer: a playwright in his own right, he’s been working on the screenplay for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom in actor-director-producer Denzel Washington’s plan to adapt all 10 of the cycle plays for HBO following the success of Fences, released last year), did a terrific job staging this Jitney and David Gallo’s set, lit by Jane Cox, is a beautiful jumble of street junk and cast-offs.  (Scott Laule is the show’s properties supervisor.)  Starting with a superb cast of actors, Santiago-Hudson tuned them into an integrated jazz-like ensemble so interwoven, each character and actor riffing on his or her own theme, that none of Wilson’s dramaturgical deficiencies has a lasting effect.  Like Bearden’s collages, made up of bits cut from diverse sources and fused with the artist’s own additions, a viewer can step back and just let the whole experience flow.  Santiago-Hudson understands this dynamic and mostly keeps out of the way enough to let the actors and Wilson’s writing carry the play. 

The physical production is of the same vein.  In Gallo’s cluttered storefront, looking like a squatter’s nest of salvaged odds and ends, the outside world only intrudes in small bursts: the constantly ringing telephone—almost another character in the play—bringing in Hill District residents in need of a ride; noises and sounds (created by Darron L. West) from the street; the hazy view through the station’s windows of the rest of the block; the incursions now and then by outsiders to the car service like Shealy, Rena, and Philmore (Ray Anthony Thomas), a neighborhood doorman who uses the jitneys frequently; and the conversations of the drivers about goings-on and people in the neighborhood.  This corner of the universe is enhanced beautifully by the jazz-colored music composed by Bill Sims, Jr., the period-perfect costumes (in all their 1970s kitchiness) of Toni-Leslie James, and the hair and make-up styles of Robert-Charles Vallance.  Cox’s lighting scheme not only evokes the time of day, but the designer alternately illuminates corners of the room and hides them in shadows.  (Some reviewers complained about an expressionistic effect Cox uses at the end as inconsistent with the tone of Santiago-Hudson’s production, but it went by me so fast, I didn’t even catch it so it couldn’t have been that intrusive.)

On the basis of 51 published reviews, Show-Score gave MTC’s Jitney an average rating of 87 (including some out-of-town sources) with 98% of the notices positive, 2% mixed, and none negative.  Show-Score’s tally included 11 95’s (including the New York Times), the highest rating, and 15 90’s; the lowest score was 65, the sole mixed notice.  My survey will comprise 32 outlets, including the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the hometown paper of the Hill District.

“Conversation sings and swings, bends and bounces and hits heaven smack in the clouds,” wrote Brantley in his Times review of Jitney, which he dubbed a “glorious new production” at MTC.  Brantley added, “In Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s vital revival . . ., words take on the shimmer of molten-gold notes from the trumpets of Louis and Miles.”  The Timesman fairly raved about the show: “How sweet the sound.  And how sorrowful and jubilant, as life in a storefront taxi company . . . comes to feel like a free-form urban concerto, shaped by the quick-witted, improvisatory spirit that makes jazz soar.”  (No wonder the notice scored a 95!)  Linking the play’s Broadway opening (the evening before the inauguration) to the political atmosphere of the new Trump administration and linking Wilson’s dramaturgy to “another great American dramatist, Arthur Miller,” the Times reviewer praised the “impeccably tuned ensemble” and singled out  John Douglas Thompson for special notice, and Brantley remarked that Gallo’s set “exudes an aura of both contingency and vibrancy.”  (The Times published a fascinating article, “Picturing Pittsburgh, Iron City Beer Included” by Erik Piepenburg, that discusses in detail Gallo’s stage design for Jitney.  It ran in the print edition on 12 February in the “Arts & Leisure” section and is on the Times website at https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/09/theater/jitney-august-wilson-pittsburgh-set-design-david-gallo.html.  Both versions are illustrated with photos of details of the set.  ROTters who are interested in—or even just curious about—scenic design should take a look.) 

In the Wall Street Journal, Edward Rothstein said of the play: “Everything feels thoroughly authentic . . . .  Wilson’s play . . . is so disciplined, so full of distinctive voices with their own pungent passions and fears, and so meticulously brought to life by a taut ensemble feelingly directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson that we fully accept this world as it is given to us . . . (with excellent scenic design by David Gallo).”  Rothstein affirmed, as I expect Wilson intended, that theatergoers don’t just see a performance: “We are eavesdropping; we are witnessing.”  Calling the play a “vibrant group portrait,” Joe Dziemianowicz in the New York Daily News declared that Jitney “delivers a gripping ride.”  Dziemianowicz dubbed Santiago-Hudson’s production “atmospheric” and characterized the cast as a “fine-tuned ensemble.”

In amNew York, Matt Windman labeled MTC’s Jitney “a focused and penetrating production . . . featuring an outstanding ensemble cast” who “excel at delivering Wilson’s colloquial but lyrical language.  Windman observed that the play provides “bits and pieces of plot, . . . but ‘Jitney’ functions primarily as a detailed study of the characters and their rough environment.”  Linda Winer of Long Island’s Newsday called MTC’s Jitney a “[l]oving, authoritative Broadway premiere” in her “Bottom Line” and went on to characterize the play as a “rich, chatty, eerily mature work” in “a meticulously cast” production.  In the U.S. edition of The Guardian, Alexis Soloski pronounced that Jitney “is that very rare thing—a play that ought to be longer.”  Even at 2½ hours, Soloski explained, “the immersion in these characters and their world is so closely woven and complete that when the final line peals out, it’s hard not to wish for another act, another scene, another ride.”  The Guardian reviewer affirmed, “Much of the acting is extraordinary,” especially noting the confrontation scene between Thompson’s Becker and Dirden’s Booster, and praised Santiago-Hudson’s “fine ear for the play’s musicality.” 

“Directed with nuance by Ruben Santiago-Hudson and featuring a stellar ensemble,” asserted Patrick Maley for the Newark Star-Ledger (on nj.com) of MTC’s Jitney, “the show finds real nobility in the everyday lives of a downtrodden community . . . .”  The review-writer added, “‘Jitney’ is full of rich, flawed human characters whom Wilson treats with compassion and empathy.”  The physical design, Maley stated, made the show seem “not a museum piece, but a dynamic visit from the past” and the director “finds the soul of ‘Jitney’ and guides his team toward it with a steady hand” while “capturing the profound human drama of ‘Jitney’ with palpable grace.”  On NorthJersey.com, Robert Feldberg of the Bergen County Record warned that the 1979 Jitney script “bears the imprint of a young playwright who hadn’t fully found his voice.  There are moments of melodrama and sentimentality that seem borrowed from a common dramatic shelf.”  Still, Feldberg affirmed, it has the Wilsonian quality of “a vibrant awareness of the community he was writing about.”  Though the Record reviewer noted that Jitney is “a vivid signpost to the more significant plays that followed,” he noted that it “is not a great work,” with “story elements . . . wanting dramatically in various ways.”

Just to get the perspective of someone who lives in the milieu of Wilsoniana, I checked the notice of Christopher Rawson of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.  (Apparently a paper of more neighborhood interest in the day would have been the afternoon Pittsburgh Press, pages from which appear on the set, but it stopped publishing in 1992.)  Rawson called the Broadway début of Jitney “a splendid, feisty production” of “one of the most robustly comic and audience-friendly of the Cycle plays.”  The MTC mounting, he said, “is a full-blooded August Wilson play, realized with professional skill and heartfelt zest.”  Rawson, who’s seen many a production of Jitney (which, remember, started in Pittsburgh with two premières), has developed some “presumptions” about casting.  Nonetheless, he praised nearly all the New York actors—some, like Dirden as Booster, he even found as good as any he’d seen in the roles.  One or two even surprised him with fresh interpretations or nuances by actors with different stage presences.  Rawson concluded that in MTC’s Jitney, “the result is a rich seam of emotion within a lively tragicomedy that speaks to us all.” 

Complaining only about “the minor drag” of  “a little too much blues music to mark the transitions,” the New Yorker reviewer for “Goings On About Town” reported that Santiago-Hudson “keeps the story moving” while he “handles the large cast . . . with verve.”  The actors, an ensemble of “uniformly good work,” all demonstrate “great skill and humor,” with particular notice for Michael Potts and André Holland.  In New York magazine, Jesse Green called Jitney “not only a worthy evening of theater but a fascinating archeological artifact,” but complained, “There is no central spine to the story, only—. . . as in some jazz—a round robin of variations.”  Santiago-Hudson, said Green, tries to integrate the pieces “but is limited by the patchwork text.”  The man from New York concluded, “If in Jitney we see the marks of Wilson’s ambition but not yet the payoff, that only makes it more valuable.  Jitney was the way he got there.”  The Village Voice’s Michael Feingold gave a lengthy and detailed analysis of Wilson’s play and his dramaturgy, then acknowledged that director Santiago-Hudson staged the MTC revival so that the “depth and density comes out vividly” and “[e]very role is fulfilled handsomely and inventively.”  The Voice review-writer concluded, “Far better than following the rules of playwriting, Jitney follows the unruly, unpredictable, inexplicable patterns of life.”

In Time Out New York, David Cote compared Jitney, “a soul-sustaining, symphonic piece,” to the cars the characters drive and decided it “is built to last and moves like a dream.”  Santiago-Hudson “steers a powerhouse cast through” performances that are a “deliverance for audiences hungry for soaring language and tough truths.”  The man from TONY concluded that MTC’s Jitney is “a thrilling journey.”  Maya Stanton of Entertainment Weekly dubbed Jitney an “intelligent, thought-provoking piece” and “an emotionally bruising gem of a play” that is “[b]y turns hilarious and devastating.”  Stanton further reported, “The talented cast soars under the confident direction of Tony-winner Ruben Santiago-Hudson,” who “offers a straightforward interpretation of the material.”  The EW reviewer ends by stating, “From the stellar performances to the sharp script, Jitney is a substantial piece, and a breath of fresh air to boot.” 

Marilyn Stasio characterized MTC’s production as a “pitch-perfect revival” with a “fine cast” in Variety.  The review-writer’s take on the Broadway Jitney was that director Santiago-Hudson “dances to the rhythms of ensemble directing, which assures that these actors live for and through their characters.”  David Rooney’s “Bottom Line” on the play in the Hollywood Reporter was: “A bustling microcosm of boundless scope and texture.”  Labeling it “superb” and “gorgeous,” the HR review-writer declared the production is “shaped with imperceptible skill into a hypnotic blues symphony” conducted with “fluidity.”  Of the cast, Rooney wrote, “There’s not an actor on the stage who doesn’t thoroughly inhabit his or her flavorful character,” and he singled out several for special mention. 

In the cyber press, Steven Suskin declared of MTC’s Jitney in the first of two Huffington Post reviews, “Given that . . . director Ruben Santiago-Hudson has filled his cast with grand performers giving grand performances, theatergoers can head to the Samuel Friedman prepared to be entranced and entertained.”  With praise for the cast, especially Thompson and Dirden, the HP reviewer reported, “Santiago-Hudson helps his cast . . . bring out the richness in the characters.”  Suskin characterized the revival as an “excellent production of an intriguing play, overflowing with that incomparable language of the master.”   He found, however, that “the script itself, as rich as it is in performance, is not quite an American classic and not quite up to the other nine plays. Jitney,” he explained, “is built in fits and starts.”  Suskin concluded, though: “That said, the cast and the production make this Jitney a must-see for those who appreciate the voice of August Wilson.”  In Huffington Post’s second notice, Regina Weinreich also pronounced the show “a must-see,” especially given Santiago-Hudson’s “superb direction.”  In her last comment, Weinreich admonished, “By play’s end, with the wrecking ball of gentrification looming large over this fine-tuned ensemble, you are no more ready to leave the station than Jitney’s drivers are. RRRRring!  It must go on.” 

Elyse Sommer congratulated MTC on CurtainUp for “giving Jitney the production it deserves,” in a “well-paced, sensitive” mounting with the “top to bottom excellence of this ensemble.”  Sommer spotlighted the work of designers Gallo and James and composer Sims.  The CU reviewer concluded that the evening comes “together for . . . an uplifting and bracing moment.”  On New York Theater, Jonathan Mandell described the MTC production as “superbly acted and directed,” reporting that Santiago-Hudson “makes the play as lively and funny as it should be.”  Each of the cast members gets due praise from Mandell, as do the contributions of scenarist Gallo, costumer James, and composer Sims.  The New York Theater reviewer concluded that “for the moment at least, ‘Jitney’ feels not just rewarding, but necessary.”

Jitney “has a rougher, more contrived quality than later works . . .,”  asserted Zachary Stewart on TheaterMania, “but it crackles with the energy of a writer eager to wrestle with difficult questions.”  The TM review-writer continued: “The result is a deeply satisfying drama that leaves us grappling with these issues as they pertain to the present day.”  Calling the “excellent” production, “directed with loving attention to detail,” a “stellar revival,” Stewart noted that “great performances outnumber mediocre ones,” though he is unenthusiastic about “miscast” Dirden as Booster.  The cyber reviewer praised the rest of the cast as well as James’s costumes, Cox’s lighting, Sims’s music, and Gallo’s set, and summed up by stating that “Jitney tells [Wilson’s African-American] story beautifully in two and a half hours.  Samuel L. Leiter, blogging on Theatre’s Leiter Side, dubbed Santiago-Hudson’s staging of the play “revved-up,” comparing it to “a boxing ring for champion actors” who engage here in “a slugfest of performance give and take” under the director’s “coaching.”  He warned, however, that “there’s so much high-octane acting one wishes the actors could now and then step on the brakes.”  Leiter offered praise for Gallo’s set, James’s costumes, Cox’s lighting, and West’s sound design, and in the end, he quipped, “There may be no jitneys in New York but there are plenty of other ways to get to the MTC.  It’ll be well worth the ride.”

Michele Willens, calling the direction and the ensemble acting in Jitney “pitch perfect” on Theatre Reviews Limited, confessed that she “thoroughly enjoyed spending two and a half hours with this working-class gang, so touchingly and honestly just trying to make a living.”  The TRL reviewer concluded, “This is Pittsburgh poetry, August Wilson style, and it is very fine indeed.”  On Broadway World, Michael Dale reported that Santiago-Hudson “delivers a superb production filled with funk, grit, humor and some positively thrilling acting.”  Dale summed up by asserting, “While Jitney’s impact may not reach the magnitude of Wilson’s zenith, . . . this compelling production is continually engaging and thick with humor and emotion.”

Matthew Murray wrote on Talkin’ Broadway of the production that the characters

form a magnetic bond you can feel emanating from the stage, and, under the capable direction of Ruben Santiago-Hudson, have the properly melodic way with Wilson’s epically musical downscale dialogue, which bestows an added respectability and sense of size to the street patois so many of these people speak. 

Murray complained, however, about “the externals”:

David Gallo’s set does not sit comfortably in the space, and has a too-sweeping look that mutes some of the sense of claustrophobic dread. (The costumes by Toni-Leslie James, the original music by Bill Sims Jr., and the sound design by Darron L. West more accurately capture the mood.) And though Santiago-Hudson scarcely falters in his work with the actors, his staging of the scene transitions and one critical second-act moment come across as too self-involved, more about the unexpected effects of Jane Cox’s lights (which are otherwise strong) than giving these moments the stark clarity they really require.

On Theater Scene, Victor Gluck dubbed MTC’s Jitney “a magnificent revival” that, in the current environment, “is timely once again.”  Gluck asserted, “a better staging could not be imagined of this involving and engrossing play,” for which Santiago-Hudson has assembled a “true ensemble.”  The TS reviewer paid compliments to the designs of Gallo and James, and the music of Sims.  He compared the current production with its 2000 Off-Broadway predecessor, which “made Jitney seem like a series of vignettes, bits and pieces, that didn’t actually cohere.”  Director Santiago-Hudson makes it “a great American story of men struggling to make ends meet and live their disparate lives side by side.”  Gluck concluded, “Not only is the play absorbing, it is both wise and compassionate.”  The review-writer closed by admonishing that “this is a play that must be seen.”

Calling the Broadway début of Jitney a “sterling revival,” Mich[a]el Bracken reported on Theater Pizzazz that Santiago-Hudson “capitalizes on [the] flow [of the natural comings and goings], ensuring smooth and seamless transitions.”  The director has assembled a “remarkable ensemble cast “ among whom “[n]o one stands out because they’re all outstanding.  They play off each other beautifully.”  Though Bracken noted the long journey Jitney took to get to Broadway, he closed by asserting, “This splendid production gives it the wholehearted welcome it deserves.”  On NY Theatre Guide (not to be confused with New York Theatre Guide below), Jeff Myhre declared, “Ruben Santiago-Hudson directs my choice for best play of the year.”  Wilson’s “words allow mediocre actors to give good performances, and good actors to give great ones. In this production, we get a glimpse of what lies beyond great, and it is a gift to the audience, the cast, and the crew.”  He included praise not only for Gallo’s set, Cox’s lighting, James’s costumes, West’s soundscape, and Sims’s music, but also Robert-Charles Vallance’s make-up and hair and Thomas Schall’s fight choreography.  The NY Theatre Guide review-writer concluded, “This is theatre at its most serious and at its most useful.” 

On Front Row Center, Show-Score’s only low (mixed) rating at 65, Tulis McCall (who also posted on New York Theatre Guide) commented, “Sometimes I think of August Wilson as a composer.  The text of his plays comes through as music.”   She then asserted, “Jitney has moments that are transcendent.”  McCall, however, caviled that the pay was “a bit disjoint[ed] on the one hand and predictable on the other” and held “no real surprises for me.”  The FRC reviewer, though, thought she was in a minority because the audience around her “was vocal in their response”: “It was as if the music of the piece swept off the stage and grabbed them up.”

On the air, declaring the Century Cycle “a masterpiece,” Jennifer Vanasco said on WNYC, an outlet of National Public Radio in New York City, that after its many revisions, Jitney is “now close to perfect.”  The radio reviewer asserted that “as directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, this is a magnificent production, one of the best shows to be staged this year,” reporting, “The ensemble conveys authenticity and a sparkling vibrancy.”  Venasco concluded, “The drivers in Jitney have a deep respect for one another and we have a deep respect for them.  To generate this kind of empathy is art’s highest purpose.”   Roma Torre of NY1, the news channel of the Spectrum cable system (formerly Time Warner Cable), affirmed that Jitney “speaks with an eloquence that transcends time and place.”  The characters are “portrayed by an excellent ensemble” and director Santiago-Hudson “recognizes, more than almost anyone else, the universal themes in Wilson’s plays that sing to us all.”  At WNBC, the New York City outlet of the TV network, Robert Kahn characterized Broadway’s Jitney as “an artful and melodic staging” by Santiago-Hudson and praised each member of the cast.  He explained, “The MTC’s ensemble does a glorious job bringing home [the play’s] message.”   
*  *  *  *
[The ten plays in August Wilson’s Century Cycle, in the order of their setting, are:
·   1904 – Gem of the Ocean (premièred 2003, Goodman Theatre, Chicago; Broadway 2004)
·   1911 – Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (1986, Yale Rep, New Haven, CT; 1988; Broadway revival, 2009, Lincoln Center Theater)
·   1927 – Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (1984, Yale; 1984; Broadway revival, 2003)
·   1936 – The Piano Lesson (1987, Yale; 1990; Drama Desk Award, Pulitzer Prize; Lucille Lortel Award [Revival], 2013)
·   1948 – Seven Guitars (1995, Goodman; 1996’; Pulitzer nomination)
·   1957 – Fences (1985, Yale; 1987; Broadway revival, 2010’ Tony, Drama Desk, Pulitzer; Tony [Revival], Drama Desk [Revival])
·   1969 – Two Trains Running (1990, Yale; 1992; Lucille Lortel [Revival],2007)
·   1977 – Jitney (1982, Allegheny Rep, Pittsburgh/1996, Pittsburgh Public Theater; 2017)
·   1985 – King Hedley II (1999, Pittsburgh Public; 2001; Pulitzer nomination)
·   1997 – Radio Golf (2005, Yale; 2007)

[In addition to this production of Jitney, I saw Fences on Broadway (with James Earl Jones and Mary Alice, directed by Lloyd Richards; all won Tonys, as did the play) in July 1987 (I haven’t seen the movie yet), Two Trains (one of only two plays in the cycle I’ve seen twice on stage) on Broadway (with Larry Fishburne, who won a Tony, and Roscoe Lee Browne, directed by Lloyd Richards) in May 1992 and at the Signature Theatre Company in December 2006, Seven Guitars (the other double-tap) on Broadway (with Ruben Santiago-Hudson, who won a Tony, Keith David, and Viola Davis, directed by Richards) in May 1996 and at Signature (with Lance Reddick, directed by Santiago-Hudson) in September 2006, Joe Turner by the New Federal Theatre at the Henry Street Settlement on Manhattan’s Lower East Side in late fall, 1996, Ma Rainey at Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage in late fall, 2002, Gem at Arena in February 2007, King Hedley at Signature in March 2007, and Piano Lesson at Signature (directed by Santiago-Hudson) in December 2012 (and on television with Charles Dutton and Alfre Woodard and directed by Lloyd Richards in February 1995).  I also saw Santiago-Hudson perform How I Learned What I Learned at Signature in December 2013.  (I’ve posted reports on ROT of Piano Lesson on 14 December 2012 and How I Learned on 20 December 2014.  Earlier Wilson performances—Seven Guitars, Two Trains, Gem, and King Hedleypredated this blog, but I’ll consider posting the archival reports at some near-future date.  Unfortunately, there are no write-ups of Fences, 1992 Two Trains, 1996 Seven Guitars, Joe Turner, or Ma Rainey.)]

19 February 2017

Berlin Memoir, Part 5

[In Part 5 of my “Berlin Memoir,” I try to describe some of the unusual—you might even say weird—experiences that occurred daily, or at least weekly, in the West Berlin of the Cold War.  As you’ll see, living in this little island of democracy inside the German Democratic Republic, especially as a Military Intelligence agent, could be . . . well, odd is a moderate way of saying it.  If you haven’t read he first four parts of this series, I suggest you go back and catch up on them before setting out on part 5.  It provides background for much of what follows and I explain and define some things in the earlier sections that come up again in the rest of the series.  (Parts 1 through 4 were posted on 16 and 31 December 2016, and 20 January and 9 February 2017.)]

The city of Berlin is a slightly peculiar entity in itself.  It’s a very old city—something like 750 years now, I think—and, like New York, it grew out and swallowed up other towns which became boroughs of the city.  Unlike New York, with its discreet five boroughs, Berlin had some two dozen (reduced in recent years to about a dozen), and some of the official boroughs had neighborhoods that seemed more like separate boroughs.  When someone asked a Berliner where she lived, she’d usually start with the borough or neighborhood: Tempelhof (where the airport was), Kreuzberg (where a surveillance fiasco in which I was involved happened), Zehlendorf (where the U.S. HQ was), Spandau (where the infamous prison that held Rudolf Hess was), and so on.  The Wall split Berlin in two parts, each with its own boroughs; the Soviet Sector was approximately one-third of the old city (about a million people) and the Allied Sectors about two-thirds.  (The reason that the three Allies shared two-thirds instead of the obvious three-quarters of the city—the same had been true of Germany as a whole—was that at the Yalta and Potsdam wartime conferences, the Soviets rejected an equal share in the Occupation for France, so the U.S. and Britain agreed that the French zone would be ceded from their areas.)  The Wall did not always conform exactly to the border dividing the eastern section from the west; the Soviets built the Wall within its territory and sometimes construction, roads, or the Spree River meant that the Wall was many yards east of the actual border. 

One aggravating result of this formation of the city is that streets with the same name could exist in several boroughs but not be connected at all—like Fifth Avenue in Manhattan and Fifth Avenue in Brooklyn.  But the reverse is also true: the same road might change names as it passes through each borough.  If someone gave you an address to find in Berlin, you needed to know in which borough it was in order to find it.  Driving in Berlin was hard enough—an old city with unplanned street layouts and narrow and crowded streets, not to mention my big, American car.  (I had a red 1970 Ford Torino I got after I graduated from college.  Man, it was a pretty car!  And did it attract attention on the streets of Berlin and the roads of West Germany!  Candy-apple red with airplane bucket seats, a black interior, and a fastback.  Mmm-mmm.)  I’ll never know how I learned to drive around that town—but I did.  (There was a tiny little stretch of Autobahn in Berlin, and I used to take the Torino on it and let ’er loose for a couple of miles to let the engine run after weeks of cramped city driving.  There are—or were in those days—no speed limits on Autobahns, even within Berlin.  I’d get ‘er up to 100+ mph for a few minutes, once up and once back.)

The Wall went up beginning in August 1961 and took about a year to construct—though it was always under alteration and sections were rebuilt and sometimes shifted from time to time.  Mostly, however, the Wall was a constant presence in the city and in the minds of Berliners for 28 years.  It was grey concrete and ugly—a scar across the middle of the city.  I arrived in Berlin just before August 1971, the tenth anniversary of the Wall’s construction, and was immediately added to the Station’s contingent of observers for the massive demonstrations that were planned for the commemoration.  One of the tasks we had was demo coverage—watching political demonstrations to note who was there and what anyone said or did.  I know that this sounds totalitarian, and I suppose in the abstract it is.  But we only observed—we did not disrupt any demonstration, hassle any participants, bug anyone’s office or home in connection with a demonstration (we did for other reasons), or in any way try to prevent a demonstration. 

Remember that Berlin was not only the spy center of Europe, so keeping an eye out at such large political gatherings was no more than watchfulness, but the city attracted large numbers of young anarchists and militant activists who were performing terrorist acts all over Germany.  (Students in Berlin were exempt from the German draft, so many West German young men came to the city for university.)  I mentioned the RAF/Baader-Meinhof Gang; there were other, smaller cells, too, such as the Movement 2 June and SPK (Sozialistisches Patientenkollektiv – Socialist Patients’ Collective).  These folks had a habit of blowing things up and kidnapping people.  And people like Michael “Bommi” Baumann (1947-2016) and Red Rudi Dutschke (1940-79), radical student revolutionaries, were active in Berlin.  Prudence dictated that we keep an eye on them, especially when something as charged as the Wall was the subject of an action.

Those 1971 demos—there were two, one leftist-oriented in favor of the Wall and one rightist, opposing it—were both aimed at the same spot: the saddest place in Cold War Berlin—the Peter Fechter Memorial.  Fechter was a 19-year-old laborer in East Berlin who made an escape attempt with a friend in 1962, one of the first after the Wall was erected.  Fechter and his friend hid in an abandoned building next to the Wall on the eastern side—the Soviets kept the area uninhabited, unlike the FROG which encouraged people to move into the area near the western side—and watched the Vopos (Volkspolizei, ot “people’s police,” the East German police and border guards.).  When they thought there was a gap in the coverage, they made a run for it, scaling the fence that formed the eastern side of the no-man’s strip (sometimes, for obvious reasons, called the death strip) on the eastern side of the Wall.  They made it over the fence and through the death strip, and Fechter’s friend made it over the Wall into West Berlin, but Fechter was shot in the hip as he scaled the Wall and fell back into the no-man’s land.  Western Observers, including journalists and some U.S. military, were prevented from helping Fechter by the Vopos who threatened to shoot anyone entering the strip.  No one from the East went to Fechter’s aid, though he screamed in pain for help for several hours as he bled to death.  When he died, the Vopos did enter the no-man’s land to recover his body.  A memorial plaque was mounted in front of the Wall on the Western side at the spot where Fechter fell and died. 

Both demos, numbering several thousand each—maybe even tens of thousands—were headed for that same spot.  Everyone knew that if they got there together, there’d be a street battle between the leftists and the rightists, and no one wanted that.  (We observers, following along with one or the other march, also knew that we didn’t want to get caught either between the two groups of protestors or between the protestors and the police.  We had a special code word to shout at the police line as we ran toward them for protection—we were not armed, of course—so they’d let us through their ranks and not shoot us in mistake for attacking protestors.) 

This was the most astonishing example of competence, resolve, and steadfastness I have ever witnessed.  When signs of violence broke out—some stones thrown, some sticks that had been holding up protest signs snapped off and swung—the police moved in to clear the streets.  They had been lining the streets—just standing still along the curb, in riot gear, with tall shields, and the biggest German shepherds I have ever seen—until the violence started.  Now they just moved in slowly, walking with their shields in front of them, forming a moving wall.  They simply herded the protestors, from whichever side, down the streets and into the subway entrances.  The message was clear: You can stay in the subway station or you can get on a train and come up somewhere else, but you’re not coming back up here. 

Not one billy club was swung, not one weapon was drawn (much less fired), not one cop shouted an epithet or insult (some of the protestors did, though—but the cops didn’t overreact).  They just calmly and professionally—and evenhandedly—cleared the streets and restored order before things got out of hand.  Bang, it was over.  No riot, no serious injuries, no nothin’.  The protestors got to march, carry their signs, make their statement—and they would have been able to make their speeches or whatever if they hadn’t turned potentially violent—and the police kept order without any excess.  Now, the Berlin police had infantry training—the German army was not permitted to operate in Berlin, so the cops were paramilitary stand-ins if necessary—but I was still impressed with the way they handled this situation.  Think of it: a generation earlier, the predecessors of these cops were the guys who roughed up and killed civilians in the streets.  But these cops were in better control of themselves and their turf than any U.S. force (or the National Guard—Kent State had been just a little over a year earlier) at the time.

One odd thing about the Wall (and old Berlin, too) that has no real counterpart in New York is that, though the Wall did surround the Western Sectors of the divided city, it also had little orphans.  All of Berlin isn’t contiguous: there are little communities that are legally and politically part of the city, but which aren’t attached.  Like little islands—maybe that’s where the parallel to New York lies.  Think of land-locked versions of Governor’s Island, Roosevelt Island, and North and South Brother Islands.  Each of these little satellite communities of the Western Sectors was also surrounded by a wall, since they were still Allied territory in the midst of the DDR.  (Eastern satellites didn’t need this, of course)  Some of these enclaves—they’re not towns, but neighborhoods—were connected to West Berlin by walled corridors so residents could get back and forth and the enclaves could be serviced by Berlin police and firefighters.  I don’t know how many of these little islets there were, but it was at least half a dozen or ten, I’d guess.  I never visited one—I don’t even know if I could have.

Berlin attracted young people, both political and not, because of a couple of very salient reasons.  When I was there, in the early ’70s, West Berlin was a vibrant and active city, with a full social and cultural life—a real city of two-and-a-half million inhabitants.  (East Berlin was a little grey and lifeless, even 25 years after the war.)  In contrast, when my parents visited Berlin in the early ’60s—they were there, by the way, for Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech—they reported that the city seemed artificial, that life was sort of staged and forced, like a Potemkin city. 

I mentioned in passing that Berlin Station had to participate in BB alerts, like any other unit.  I also said that there was an agent on duty all night and over holidays and weekends—like the CQ in ordinary line units.  He spent the night in an office just inside the building entrance and between the building entrance and the second entrance, controlled by an electronic lock which required a numerical combination to open, into the unit’s offices.  The DA office was furnished with a bed, a desk, a TV, a file cabinet (mostly empty)—and a bank of telephones, perhaps a dozen or so.  Some of the phones were ordinary BB lines—one of them “9666,” our public number.  (9666, colloquially known as “Trip-6,” was the Military Occupational Specialty for counterintel officers, which is what we all were.  There were similar or equivalent MOS’s for enlisted personnel.  This was also the license number of the CO’s staff car.) 

Other phones on the Duty Agent’s desk were special lines which were used for sources to call in with information and to arrange meets with their handlers.  Since in most cases, these sources had cover stories, and sometimes so did the handlers, these phones all had to be answered with specific cover phrases, as if they were extensions at some business, say, or some innocuous agency.  (During the time when junior officers pulled this duty, none of those phones ever rang when I was DA.  I suspect some were part of defunct operations.)  One phone was, of course, the red alert phone.  That rang once a night to check the communications system, and the DA had to answer it with a prescribed phrase: the name of the unit and the DA’s initials in phonetic alphabet.  So, when I was DA, I’d have to say, “66th MI.  Romeo-Echo-Kilo.”  It invariably rang when I was sound asleep—which I assume was intentional. 

(There was one other piece of equipment in the DA’s office at night.  Until I handled money, at the end of my tour in Berlin, except for the firing range, this was the only time I went armed.  At the end of the day, the assigned Duty Agent drew his weapon and six rounds of ammo—we carried .38 caliber Police Special revolvers—from the unit armorer.  Standard procedure while on duty was to keep the pistol loaded, but the cylinder open, and stand it on the desk, propped up by the open cylinder.  Since every DA drew the same rounds, I sometimes wondered if they’d even fire if the need ever arose.  Lord knows how old they were!)

I never got an alert call while I was DA, but during the time I was in Berlin, we had three or four full alerts.  Since we wore civvies to work, we kept uniforms at the Station to change into, so we all reported to the locker room when we got the call.  Each unit has an assignment for the outbreak of hostilities, and we are all supposed to go about preparing for that mission in an alert.  The infantry and armor units all gear up and go to the points they are expected to defend, the MP’s get into their positions to guard the compounds and other sites and to control the streets, and so on.  Our mission was to round up potential enemy agents who have been previously identified, secure sensitive personnel and get them on ’copters out of the city, and assist with the security of VIP’s and U.S. facilities. 

Obviously, in an alert, there’s not much of that we can actually do—I can just see us running around Berlin, pretending to arrest suspected commie agents.  That would go over big.  So we ended up sitting around our locker room, after putting on our “unmarked” fatigues—the ones with the U.S. device where the branch and rank insignia ought to go—and making jokes until the alert had ended.  The recurring theme of those jokes is what would probably happen if an actual war did break out in Central Europe.  As I’ve mentioned, Berlin is 110 miles inside East Germany, surrounded by the Soviet 40th Tank Army, a total of about 300,000 Red Army soldiers plus whatever East German units were out there, and any additional Warsaw Pact troops that happened to be in the region.  The Soviets, not being stupid, probably wouldn’t fight for Berlin—why waste the men and time.  We decided what they’d do is simply roll some tanks up to Checkpoints Bravo and Charlie, hang a sign on the boom gates that read “Berlin POW Camp,” and move on to the real war on the border and beyond.  That would be the end of our participation aside from some Warsaw Ghetto-type uprising or a sort of hyper-Great Escape. 

(By the way—those U.S. insignia for our fatigues?  By this time, all insignia on fatigue uniforms were “subdued”—no shiny silver or brass or bright yellow chevrons.  The Vietcong had developed a habit of taking potshots at anything that glittered in the jungle.  But there’s no such thing as a subdued U.S. device—they only came in brass because they’re only officially worn on dress uniforms, not fatigues.  So we each had to get a couple of pair of U.S.’s and turn them in to the unit clerk; he’d get them painted matte black so we could put them on a set of fatigues to stash at the Station for alerts, range-firing, and other activities that required that uniform.  I think I still have mine put away somewhere.  Needless to say, since this uniform configuration didn’t officially exist, we got some stares and wry remarks when anyone saw us dressed in it.  Most people figured we were CIA or something.  Of course, we could neither confirm nor deny . . . .)

I said that aside from the firing range—I think we went out there once officially; I went privately once to fire Dad’s souvenir Luger he brought back from WWII—the only other time I was armed beside DA duty was when I carried Army cash.  When an officer is carrying money, such as a payroll, he must be armed.  When I was reassigned to the spook bank for Intelligence Contingency Funds (ICF) in the Station’s basement, I would periodically have to buy Marks, Francs, and occasionally other currencies.  We bought Marks at the Army Finance Office in another part of the main compound, so I didn’t have to leave the grounds—but I had to wear my sidearm.  Just like the cops on TV, I had a holster on my belt, under my suit jacket.  A .38’s not large, especially the snub-nosed Police Special, but it makes a noticeable lump on your hip beneath the jacket.  So, I walked into the Finance Office the first time I had to buy Marks, feeling pretty self-conscious to start with, and, of course, there were lots of other people in there transacting business.  The FO is where the GI savings accounts are maintained, the credit union is, payments are made for such things as late pay or special disbursements, and all kinds of money business.  And in I walked, packin’ iron.  So what did the NCO behind the counter shout?  “I’ll take the guy with the gun first!”  Well, I felt like Butch Cassidy fixin’ to rob a bank!  Everybody in the place turned to took—no, stare at me.  And my gun!  I felt like I was packin’ a howitzer!  “No, that’s all right.  I’ll just wait.”  Haw-haw!!

The first time I had to get Francs, which we bought at the American Express bank in the PX across the street—where everyone had his personal checking account and what have you—I didn’t know what to expect.  I still had to carry the weapon, but this time I was going out in public.  Thank goodness, nothing happened—but I was very self-conscious.  Very self-conscious.

Needless to add, this was not a job I liked much.  Not that it wasn’t important.  It was extremely important.  But it was booooring.  First of all, it’s nothing but numbers.  Keeping books, checking requests for disbursements (I did get to know about all the really spooky stuff people in my old unit and its sister unit next door were doing, which I didn’t need to know before—but most of it turns out to be routine), reconciling conversion losses and gains (when the dollar amount is different from the amount of Marks or other foreign currency because the exchange rates are never an even ratio), counting up the cash on hand, and such.  The most excitement I had was when we had to prepare for an audit, quarterly by the Class A Agent from Group or semi-annually by the Class B Agent from USAREUR. 

Second, since I’m not a banker or an accountant and I got slammed into this job without any preparation, I couldn’t really run the day-to-day routine until I learned it OTJ.  So I had a Spec 4 clerk who had been there for some time, and he did most of the daily stuff—it was his job anyway.  He was all of 19, by the way—we had lots in common (though he was a nice enough kid).  Third, the job was what it was—I had to wait in my office until someone needed money for an op.  I couldn’t develop ops, I couldn’t make work; I just waited, drank coffee (not a habit I ever really developed except here), and read the newspaper or the Sears catalogue when it came. 

Fourth, I was no longer part of Berlin Station.  The ICF Class A Custodian (that’s what I was) is part of HQ—which, you remember was in Munich.  None of my old colleagues were, well, colleagues anymore.  Fifth, my office was in a vault in the basement.  Even if a former colleague wanted to come by to chat—I was way out of the way, with a big vault door to greet them.  As soon as the Army started riffing people, when the reduction in force began after combat in Vietnam ended, I started asking around if I could get out even though my tour in Berlin still had six months to run and I still had a few years on the obligation I incurred to get Trip-6 and Europe.  (Berlin was a lagniappe, but I worked the system to get Europe.)  Also, my name was on the promotion list for captain, and it used to be that an officer had to stay in for, I think it was a year, in order to accept promotion.  I figured I earned that promotion—it took long enough, I thought—and I was damned if I was going to be cheated out of it if I didn’t have to be. 

I was hoping that the Army, which was paying people who were riffed something like $10K for each year over five, I think, they served (unless they were riffed for incompetence), would jump at the chance to get a freebie.  If you got out at your own request, the Army didn’t pay.  I’d been in just over five years, seven counting senior ROTC—which did count as enlisted reserve—so the Army’d have had to pay me $20K or so if they riffed me.  I found out that I could accept my promotion—the requirement to stay in had been dropped when the time-in-grade for eligibility was extended—and that the Army would release me from the remaining obligation, though I’d still have to be in the inactive reserve for the remainder of my obligation.  I put in my papers.  (I might have stayed in the Army longer if they hadn’t made me an accountant.  Maybe we were both better off in the long run.)

As a parting shot, I recommended that the Class A Custodian, which had to be an officer—it was actually supposed to be a captain—should be redesignated as an extra duty for someone.  It seemed wrong to waste a trained and experienced officer like that for so little activity.  I believe they accepted my suggestion, though, of course, I wasn’t around to see if they implemented it.

I was promoted to captain on 1 December 1973, shortly before I left Berlin.  I had planned a big party at the Officers’ Club, the Harnack House, to celebrate my 26th birthday (“Closer to 30 than to 20”) in ’72, but first Harry Truman died (26 December 1972, the day after my birthday) and then Lyndon Johnson died (22 January 1973), and O-club parties were cancelled or postponed.  So I had a combined belated-birthday/promotion/departure left-over party: we tried to drink up all my remaining booze.  (We did pretty good, as I recall.  And I kept a well-stocked bar in Berlin—it was sooo cheap to get the best stuff.)  At the promotion ceremony in the CO’s office—I wasn’t part of the unit officially, but they were my administrative support since the umbilical didn’t stretch as far as Munich—I used my dad’s WWII railroad tracks.  I had had him send them to me just for that purpose.  I still have them.  (My dad made captain in WWII, and it took him about three years, I think—but he started as an EM.  It took me nearly four years, and I started as a second looie.  I got first looie about 12 months in—while I was at Monterey.)

(Speaking of my dad. there was one very personal peculiarity for me to this assignment in Berlin.  Because there hadn’t been a peace treaty to end WWII, Berlin was still under occupation until 1990 when a formal peace was finally negotiated.  While the Allies had relinquished political responsibility for what became the Federal Republic in 1949, Berlin remained occupied territory for half a century.  That meant that my service in Berlin in the ’70s made me eligible for the Army of Occupation Medal.  That’s the same ribbon my dad was awarded for service in the Occupation of Germany—he was in Cologne after VE Day—30 years earlier.  I always found it a little ironic that my dad and I both wore the same military decoration from the same war, a generation apart.  Maybe I’m the only one to find this an odd comment about the state of our modern world.  I recall there’s a Cold War Recognition Certificate that was authorized a few years back.  I qualify and I think my dad did, too, since it recognizes all Federal service, military and civilian; I had some vague idea of getting us both the same award—there’s no official medal to go along with it, though I think someone has put out an unofficial one—for some sentimental reason.  My mom didn’t feel like I did, so I never followed up on this notion.)

I had decided to go to acting school after leaving the service by this time—I had contacted Lee Kahn, the professor of theater at W&L, my alma mater, for advice and he was going to help me prepare audition pieces and, of course, recommend me to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts where he was a member of the board (and a grad school friend of the director at the time, Charles Raison).  When people asked me what I was going to do when I got out and I told them I was going to acting school, they thought that that was a helluva change from the military.  “Why?” I asked.  “I’ve been playing the part of an Army officer for five years.”  (Mine wasn’t the oddest change in career path by any means.  A friend in Berlin, who had been an infantry officer and part of our theater group—his dad was a general, and was furious about this—got out and went to clown school!  No comment.)

I’ve said that while I was living in Germany when I was a teenager, back in the early ’60s, I knew while it was happening that I was having an adventure.  When I was in Berlin, my feeling was a little different.  I had this sense that I was into something special and edgy.  It wasn’t so much danger—there was some, but, of course, nothing to compare to what was happening in Southeast Asia.  Maybe I was just taken with the romantic notion of the world’s second oldest profession—I had read all the James Bond books and, of course, the movies had already been around for a decade.  Not to mention Man from U.N.C.L.E., Get Smart, Mission: Impossible, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, and so many other fictionalized renditions.  (I’ve already mentioned our unofficial theme song, “Secret Agent Man.”)  But I had this pervasive sense that I was involved in something special.  The fact that other people with whom I came into contact treated me somehow differently—some with a kind of hostile resentment, some almost with awe—didn’t hurt, that’s certain.  (Flashing our “box tops”—what we called our badges and credentials, also known as “B’s & C’s”—was a lot like being in a neat movie.  Special Agent K*****, Military Intelligence.  I used to watch The FBI and now I was in it!)  But on top of any of this, was the feeling that I was actually doing something fairly important—even the background investigations.  My decisions would affect the security of the country, even if it was at the lowest level.  Drilling with an idiot stick or driving a tank in an exercise just didn’t match that, not in Berlin.  Of course, I was all of 24 when I arrived in Berlin, and my sole Army duties up till then had been going to class: armor school, language school, intel school.  Now I was getting to do something, and something for which I was specially and uniquely qualified—and I’m sure that had a significant effect on my attitude.  But, man, I got to know things—things other people weren’t supposed to know.  How cool was that?

Being back in Germany was also part of my consciousness.  As soon as I got off the plane at Tempelhof and drove off with Chuck through the city—remember, the airport is right downtown: you drive through the city as soon as you leave the arrivals terminal—I felt a surge of nostalgia.  (I had never been to Berlin when I lived in Germany before, but a German town is a German town in many ways.  If nothing else, all the street and store signs were in German.)  It felt like, not being home again, but being someplace very familiar.  I’m sure I was projecting, but nevertheless . . . .

(I remember watching Wim Wenders’s Wings of Desire, about two angels who hang around Berlin and watch as the humans live their lives until one of them decides he wants to become human and experience life himself.  The movie was released in ’88 and meanders around odd parts of Berlin, including some sites near sections of the Wall.  I’m not sure I can make this make sense—I’ve never articulated it before—but at one point, one of the angels crosses a street and passes in front of a row of buildings that all looked as if they dated from the immediate post-war period—’50s and ’60s or thereabouts.  It was only a few seconds of film, and it wasn’t in the least significant to the movie, but it made an odd connection for me.  For those few seconds, the scene could have been anywhere in West Germany where those kinds of buildings were ubiquitous in the early days of my family’s time there.  They were just little shops—bakeries, groceries, tobacconists, and such; I don’t even know what they were, but it could have been any street in any West German town where new buildings had been erected to replace older ones that had been destroyed in the war—they went up fast as Germany was recovering, and they all looked alike. 

All of a sudden, and just for a second or two, I was right back there in ’63 in Koblenz in those first weeks and months when my brother and I moved there to join my folks.  (See my two-part post, “An American Teen in Germany,” 9 and 12 March 2013.)  It was the oddest kind of nostalgic sense—sort of Proustian, I guess.  I reexperienced a feeling I remember having, but had never tried to describe or even, really, recognized until much, much later.  It was this absolutely certain feeling that here I was, doing this extraordinary thing—living in a foreign country—that I knew was both unique and special and exciting.  I was doing this really, really different thing—and I knew it.  All this came back to me in that brief piece of movie, just because the setting looked vaguely familiar, the Germanness of it all, the strangeness, was actually palpable.  That’s the feeling that came back driving away from Tempelhof that first day in Berlin.)

*  *  *  *
From 18 June to 12 July 1981, the New York Shakespeare Festival (now the Public Theater) presented a stage adaptation of  Wie Alles Anfing (How It All Began) by one of the anarchist militants whom I mention above, Michael “Bommi” Baumann.  I saw the show and on 1 July 1981, wrote the following brief report (slightly edited), which I’m appending here as a sidebar to Part 5 of my “Berlin Memoir”:

Based on the 1979 autobiography of former West German terrorist Michael “Bommi” Baumann (1947-2016), How It All Began was developed by the May 1981 graduating class of the Juilliard School’s Theater Division.  It was started as a class project and both dramatically and thematically, that is what it remains in the Dodger Theater production at The Other Stage (later the Susan Stein Shiva Theater) at the New York Shakespeare Festival’s Public Theater.  It appeals neither as good theater nor as good socio-history.

Pieced together from excerpts of Baumann’s book Wie Alles Anfing (How It All Began, published in Germany in 1975 and in the U.S. in 1979 as Terror or Love?) and other bits of research from the period of the mid-’60s to the early ’70s in West Germany and West Berlin during the heyday of Baumann, the Red Army Faction (AKA: The Baader-Meinhof Gang), Baumann’s Bewegung 2. Juni, and various other terrorist and anarchist groups, the student actors improvised, rehearsed, and taped the scenes and transcribed them into the collage presented here before a tar-black set resembling a ghostly version of a Feydeaux farce, with several doors, windows, and alcoves which provided access to the myriad characters of Baumann’s terrorist life in Berlin.  Most of the scenes were staged by director Des MacAnuff in the center of the floor with locale-differentiation accomplished by the use of odd pieces of furniture.  Since most of the actors played multiple roles (including several women playing men), it was not always easy to know where we were or whom we were watching.

In the end, though earnest performances were turned in by the young cast (including Val Kilmer as Baumann, Linda Kozlowski as his lover, Benjamin Donenberg as “Red” Rudi Dutschke, Jessica Drake as Ulrike Meinhof, Pamela M. White as Andreas Baader, and Mary Lynn Johnson as Gudrun Ensslin), nothing unique was accomplished, and it all remained a somewhat curious foray into the milieu of the leftist terrorist without having learned much at all that we did not already know.

One thing that I found most disturbing was the (apparently) inadvertent near-romanticization of Baumann and his RAF comrades.  Though passing lip-service was given to the violence these anarchists (their own term) perpetrated on often innocent people (an elderly night watchman in Berlin killed in the bombing of a recreational yacht basin; two sergeants and a captain blown up at the U.S. Army headquarters in Frankfurt), they were allowed to come off as lost little children, searching for vague justice—sort of Robin Hood-cum-Peter Pans.  It was my experience while I was in Berlin between 1971 and 1974 that they were no such things.  I knew that captain in Frankfurt: he had a wife and two little girls.  he was not a threat—or even a symbol; just a man.  Baumann, Baader, and Meinhof were not attractive, romantic outlaws, and they stood for nothing concrete.  They were violent and politically fuzzy-minded.  One important bit of research the young students missed was the reaction of the people for whom the RAF claimed to fight.  There was little support outside their radical student enclaves at Berlin’s Technical and Free Universities.  They were not the German counterparts of our war-protesters or even the radical Weathermen.  This missing element rendered How It All Began a vaguely troubling experience.

[I hope ROTters will return in a few weeks for Part 6 of this memoir, which will continue with my life as a GI in West Berlin and some of my escapades on and off duty.]