Jonathan Berry Returns to August Wilson’s ‘Jitney’ and Pittsburgh Playwrights

By Yvonne Hudson

August Wilson‘s characters are people whose stories leave a mark. Their journeys, as told in plays Wilson drew from real life, are vividly relatable, multi-layered, and resonant. When Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company presents August Wilson’s classic drama Jitney, its second production of the play. Several actors are returning to perform in the play in the backyard of Wilson’s childhood home in the Hill District. 

Jitney is co-presented by the August Wilson House as part of the renewed arts center’s grand opening this week.

Jonathan Berry

Jonathan Berry was last seen there in Seven Guitars and now reappears as Booster, the son of the jitney company owner in the Hill District. Berry is punching Jitney again on his Wilson scorecard, having appeared in eight of the 10 plays in Wilson’s Pittsburgh-centric plays, each set in a different decade of the 20th century. (Jitney is set in 1977.)

Berry began his acting journey in 1995 with the director and founder of the Kuntu Repertory Theatre, Dr. Vernell A. Lillie, also appearing with New Horizons Theatre, Bricolage Production Company, and Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre. He’s made his mark with compelling performances in these seven August Wilson plays with PPTCO: FencesJoe Turner Has Come and GoneTwo Trains RunningSeven GuitarsJitneyGem of the Oceanand Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

PPTCO founder and producing artistic & executive director Mark Clayton Southers directs the production. In addition to Berry, the cast features Sala Udin as Becker; Chuck Timbers as Doub; Boykin Anthony as Philmore; EIexa Hanner as Rena: Roosevelt Watts as Shealy; Richard McBride as Youngblood; Mike Traylor as Fielding; and Les Howard as Turbo.

Southers says Jitney is the company’s “most-attended play” and an audience favorite in the Wilson canon.

I asked Jonathan Berry about acting, what matters in his life, and his experiences in August Wilson’s backyard.

OnStage: Before Jitney opens, you just appeared in Savior Samuel with PPTCO at the National Black Theatre Festival in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. How was that experience, taking Mark Southers’ just-published play to an audience celebration of Black artists?

Jonathan berry: There were four performances in Winston-Salem. We’ve rehearsed Jitney for about a month now. Rehearsals for Savior Samuel picked up almost two weeks in. It was difficult to be in two places at once, but there were definitely days where I spent maybe the majority of my time at a Savior Samuel rehearsal, then finished at a Jitney rehearsal. Acting can be mentally, physically, and emotionally draining. It was difficult at times to leave a Savior Samuel rehearsal to create or establish new energy to bring to a scene for a Jitney rehearsal.

OnStage: This is your eighth August Wilson production and your second Jitney — all with PPTCO. As you move through these works (and the iconic Pittsburgh Cycle), what do you learn about Wilson the man and the playwright?  

Berry: That he was a man of incredible insight, passion, and character. That he was proud of his heritage, background, his people, experiences, and his culture. Wilson understood the importance of storytelling to preserve and pass down the rich history, culture, and intricate and multifaceted experiences of Africans, African-Americans, and the experience of African-Americans in Pittsburgh. The world is changing in many ways for the better. If progress is to continue to be made, Black people must continue to educate the generations that come behind us so that future generations understand the need for true progression and how to continue our course toward achieving real inclusion, equality, and unity.

OnStage: You are playing Booster, the son of Becker, who owns the jitney company on the Hill, for the second time. Is the play timelessly set, and/or do you find new connections or allusions when you return to a Wilson play?  

Berry: Having played Booster before, I find this character is, for the most part, in my bones. This has allowed me to go deeper in terms of emotion, intent, and purpose for Booster. I’m looking closer at the dynamic between him and his father and really trying to gauge, understand, and balance the boundaries between Booster and his father. The dynamic is familiar, and it hits home for me. My objective is to be rooted in as much truth as possible based on the storyline and my own life experiences, then to prayerfully properly put it on display for our audiences.

OnStage: This production brings the company again to the backyard of Wilson’s childhood–now opening as the August Wilson House. The place has such a vibe for his stories. What do you experience there? 

Berry: It’s a deep feeling for me of gratitude and privilege. It’s a tremendous honor, to say the least. It’s holy ground. You can feel that you are in a special place, and you can feel that you are experiencing a special place in time. During the presentation of Seven Guitars, where I played Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton (also staged on that sacred ground), I was tempted to imagine seeing life through the eyes of a very young August Wilson. It was magical, intimate, and peaceful. Audience members would often convey a similar sentiment.

OnStage: You are getting your Wilson card punched. What’s left, and what else are you looking forward to outside of the Pittsburgh Cycle? 

Berry: To pursue work in film. My dream is to find success as a film actor. To play one of August Wilson’s iconic characters in a major motion picture production would be quite the highlight of my own personal life cycle as a man, husband, father, artist, and human being.

OnStage: When you are acting, what do you enjoy most? 

Berry: What I enjoy is finding the truest, most honest way to portray a character, then putting it on display with such a jaw-dropping realism that it absolutely knocks your socks off!

OnStage: Wilson certainly provides characters with which you do that! So, what did we forget to ask?

Berry: What is important to you besides acting/ the arts?

My family. My wife and children especially. Achieving my acting dreams means a better future for my family. There are many examples of great people in my family. I am truly Blessed. I hope to be numbered among those who have made great accomplishments. Thank you.

Jitney is performed through September 18 at August Wilson House, 1727 Bedford Avenue in the Lower Hill. Friday’s opening night is sold out, with tickets on sale for all other performances online

Read more about Berry, his castmates, and director Mark Clayton Southers’ Jitney team in the show’s program.

If inclement weather prevents Jitney‘s outdoor performance, the production will move to an indoor site in the Hill District, where the company has created a duplicate set for that possibility.

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