Monday, October 19, 2015

Gems from the Jitney

Good vibes carried me into a Sunday evening.

When I walked into Saison for dinner, there was a friend I hadn't seen in months but who'd apparently been thinking about me earlier this week. He'd tuned in to the blog to see what I'd been up to and it made him want to see me.

Wishing had apparently made it so.

We took so long catching up that by the time I got to the bar and ordered my quarter chicken, the bartender told me it would be a while because an order for four whole chickens had just gone in, so the fryer was full.

It was well-timed news after all, because a guy walked in, sat down in the stool next to me and began chatting like we were old friends. It was his first time at fried chicken night and he was unsure about all of it, but finally put on his big boy pants and ordered a half chicken.

Minutes later, he looks at me and asks, "What do you wager I can't finish a half chicken?" Are you kidding? You're a grown ass man, of course you can finish half a chicken, I assure him. When he sees my quarter chicken delivered, he feels more confident about his order.

When it arrives, the bartender asks if he wants another cocktail. Gesturing at my Mexican Coke, he says, "She's got the right idea. I'll have one of those."

As we eat together, I learn that he's a restaurant worker, leading us down the rabbit hole of the nature of the hospitality industry and those inhospitable people who have no business in it (he works with a few). He obviously loves it, with an eye on opening his own place someday.

When I comment about what an appropriate Sunday supper fried chicken is, he looks at me askance. "Maybe here, but not in my family," he announces. "My family's from Maryland, Italian Catholics, and we always have lasagna for Sunday dinner."

Next, as if the dish is foreign to me, he explains the arduous and multi-hour process of lasagna making - "...and then there's the bechamel..." - and how anyone who thinks ground beef belongs in lasagna has a screw loose. These are things he clearly feels strongly about.

Saison's chicken, as usual, shatters into crispy bits with every bite of the moist meat and this week's sides are classically southern: braised greens and a biscuit with sorghum butter, all of which which beats pasta any day in my book. Don't talk to me about lasagna when I've got fried yard bird in hand.

We chat so long I have to suddenly pay and leave when I realize my play starts in ten minutes. It's only at this point that we finally introduce ourselves and he insists that I come by the restaurant where he works for more conversation and, he assures me, an excellent meal by their new chef.

Will do.

Then it's on to the Basement for the second night in a row, except this time it's for a one-night performance of "Blacklist: August Wilson," a night devoted to spotlighting the works of this most significant black playwright.

Since it was general admission, I found a single seat, conveniently located next to a talkative guy who turned out to be a park ranger by day and a playwright by night. Considering I'd spent an hour listening to a park ranger earlier today - and everyone knows Mike Gorman - it was like we had multiple things in common from the get-go.

Where he far surpassed me was in his August Wilson scholarship, having read most of them and already certain that "Joe Turner's Come and Gone" was his favorite. I'm not completely Wilson illiterate because I recognized the names of three of the plays, although I'd never seen one produced. I wasn't proud of that.

Introduced by Mary Shaw, who along with Carolyn Meade had conceived of and created the event, she made a point of saying, "There were murmurs around town that if you do this kind of work, people won't come. Thank you."

The beauty of it was that she was saying it to a full house.

A group of twenty talented black actors had come together to learn scenes from Wilson's "Century Cycle," a group of ten plays, one for each decade of the 20th century black experience, with musical segues featuring music from the appropriate decade before each scene.

Not knowing the plays, I could  glean a little from the monologues and scenes we saw, and the benefit of this was that it was all about the acting. And, holy cow, what acting!

So many times tonight, I found myself dazzled by an actor I'd never seen before. Scenery was chewed by talent I'd never so much as heard of and I'm a regular theater-goer. If there are this many extremely talented black actors in this town, shouldn't more of them be cast more often?

I got a kick out of one scene from "Joe Turner's Come and Gone" because it involved a fried chicken dinner ("Now, my Mom, she could fry some chicken!") like the one I'd just enjoyed, but "The Piano Lesson" told a heartbreaking story of a piano traded for a slave and a half, a horrific concept.

It wasn't surprising to read that "Fences" had won the Pulitzer and a Tony because the scenes we saw were electrifying (Father to son, "Liking your black ass wasn't part of the bargain").

The audience responded to the stories within the scenes viscerally and loudly. When a wife finds out her husband has cheated on her, she says, "Where was "we" when you was rolling around with some god-forsaken woman?" or, "You're not the only one with wants and needs," and a spontaneous chorus of "Mmm-hmm" and "That's right" went up from the people in the seats around me.

"Two Trains Running" appealed to me because it dealt with the '60s, the height of black power, and the different reactions blacks had to the changing social climate, but, honestly, I'd happily see any one of these ten plays produced in full.

Do you know the last time I saw an all-black cast in a play? This will date me, but it was when TheatreVirginia did an all-black casting of Tennessee Williams' "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof." And while it was a fascinating thing to experience, it's not the same as seeing parts written for blacks by a black playwright.

As I told one of my favorite artistic directors tonight, Richmond has a terrific theater scene but the casting could better represent the city's demographics. He heartily agreed. Tonight's performance proved that we have more than enough talent to do that.

Seems like it's about time to do the right thing.

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