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Cabbie's Lament: Multi Ethnic Theater Launches a Multi-Year Tribute to an Esteemed Playwright 

Tuesday, Aug 5 2014
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Why dedicate seven years of your life — and your audience's attention — to a single playwright?

"Because I love the plays. It's that simple," Multi Ethnic Theater artistic director Joseph Campbell says. "And because, although I'd love to direct all of Shakespeare's plays, it seemed more reasonable to attempt Wilson's 10."

Campbell is talking, of course, about the works of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson. He has already directed three of Wilson's 10-play "Pittsburgh Cycle:" Fences, Joe Turner's Come and Gone, and Gem of the Ocean; this summer, Campbell's Multi Ethnic Theater joins forces with Custom Made Theatre for "August in August," presenting one work by Wilson annually through 2020.

Campbell is at work on a fourth production from the "Pittsburgh Cycle," Jitney. Like Wilson's plays, Campbell's motivations for completing the entire series are multifaceted. Campbell feels drawn instinctively to Wilson's work, but a shared fascination with history and issues of race, family, community, and politics deeply binds Campbell to Wilson. The playwright's poetic language and story constructions, which capture the milieu of a time and universalize its themes, inspire Campbell to draw a bold comparison: "I consider Wilson to be the Shakespeare of our time."

In 1993, Campbell retired early from his theater educator position at the San Francisco School of the Arts to become MET's artistic director. He established himself as a believer in "broadening the artistic palette" with a "color creative approach to casting," moving beyond stereotypical casting to imagine roles typically played by white males instead played by people of color or women. After presenting its first production at the Gough Street Playhouse, MET moved to the Potrero Hill Neighborhood House until 1996, but eventually returned to its original location and melded with Theater Residencies Incorporated to form the nonprofit TRI/MET. Over the years, Campbell has directed and designed plays by Lorraine Hansberry, Anton Chekhov, Thornton Wilder, Ossie Davis, and others.

Wilson's work aligns itself with his preferred mode and methodology as a director. "I'm strong on not getting in the way of natural instincts. Acting is not something that you make happen, it's something you allow to happen," Campbell says.

Jitney, the ensemble play next in his Wilson lineup, revolves around a 1970s unofficial cab company threatened by gentrification. Set in Pittsburgh's Hill District, a largely African-American neighborhood, the plot follows four jitney drivers — "everyday Joes" — who give rides where city cab drivers refuse to go, and their associates: a tough-minded boss, a hot-headed Vietnam vet, a tailor who's turned to alcohol, and others.

Campbell says the play is threaded with stories of struggle and survival: It's a portrayal of things torn down and of hope for resurrection. He and the actors anticipate audiences will draw comparisons between the narrative and present-day San Francisco. "We recognize that the idea of gentrification is in the news today," Campbell notes. "But the San Francisco car companies that are springing up shouldn't be compared to the public service-style company that's in Jitney. The ones in San Francisco are more like a competing entrepreneur sort of thing."

For Campbell, the issue of transportation in the play isn't about commerce. Instead, the play emphasizes elements of humanity that he says are universal and therefore transcend time, place, and, most importantly, race.

"The play is more interested in relationships within the racial community than relationships between races. The message delivered [by one of the main characters] is, 'Don't get hung up on blaming the white man for your ills. The white man doesn't even care about you: You just have to do your thing.' This doesn't mean the message is confined to the African-American community. The problems these folks face are exacerbated by being African-American, but dwelling on that is not going to get you anywhere."

Never one to hesitate when a teaching opportunity presents itself, Campbell is dedicated to expanding actors' and audiences' concept of social diversity. He's pleased to discover his cast members, who he describes as "intelligent and talented," are mostly working-class people when they are not on stage. "There's a bus driver, construction worker, retired fireman — they bring that to the stage," he says proudly.

Wilson's career was tragically cut short in 2005, when he died of liver cancer at the age of 60. Although he didn't have the opportunity to add as many works to his canon as Shakespeare, Campbell and MET will keep Wilson's work alive and kicking for the next several years with "August in August."

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Lou Fancher

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