Keith Randolph Smith is a member of the cast of August Wilson’s Jitney, now in rehearsal, and opening this Fall at Arena Stage. He plays Doub, one of the drivers for the eponymous jitney in Wilson’s Pittsburgh, where he and most of the other characters work.
This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and context.
How are rehearsals going so far?
So far, so good, it’s a stimulating room to be in. Everyone is really excited. Our mentor, leader, guide is Ruben Santiago-Hudson (the director). We are really jazzed to be in the room. It’s exhilarating.
We’ve done the play before. [Smith was a member of the 2017 Tony Award winner for Best Revival, directed by Santiago-Hudson.] Ruben has been is very passionate about the work and caring for August Wilson’s legacy.
Why the role Doub?
I think he matches my personality type and rhythm. I am a team player. The way I was taught and brought up was with ensemble playing so being a part of a company. Doub is a military guy, I’m a former military guy. He is conscientious. I’m a conscientious person, I think. He is helpful to one of the younger drivers as far as, I won’t say guiding him, but being a person who [he] could bounce ideas off of and talk to that is compassionate and caring.
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Doub is the character who works to keep the peace between the two sets of warring factions. How do you relate to that?
In my own family, I’m the middle son. So I know how to broker peace between different ideas and philosophies. I pride myself on being a listener. That’s what Doub does in the play. He does have opinions, they’re thoughtful and mindful opinions.
He’s kind of a peacemaker. I’m a Zen Buddhist. I have an advanced degree in psychology. I meditate. I’m a former army soldier. There are so many things I can relate in my personal life to the character. Having those connections makes it feel like a really well-tailored, made-to-measure suit for me.
What value does this play have for us today?
I would say gentrification. Not just in New York City. It happens in pretty much every city in the United States. Taking urban areas that once nobody wanted. People who don’t have the history of the community or of the city are moving in, seeing advantages of this urban landscape.
I’m not saying that getting rid of older buildings that aren’t functioning is a bad thing. But I don’t think that when gentrification happens, people are considering the residents who were living there before. That’s what happens with the jitney station [in the play]. [Developers] want to clear out that block to build housing.
I’ve seen that happen in my community, in Cleveland, Ohio and in Pittsburgh.
August Wilson’s Jitney performs September 13 – October 20 at Arena Stage. Details and tickets
You’ve played in Jitney multiple times, in multiple cities. What do you feel you’ve learned?
I’ve learned more about my craft. I’ve been to London, San Francisco, Seattle… all these different places and you see how people respond to it. It’s a somewhat singular response. People are responding to the humanity in the play. So you can hone your listening, and relax into your listening, and experience new things with each audience.
I hadn’t really heard the term ‘jitney’ before reading this play.
They’re still there! If you live in Harlem, you’ll see black cars or sedans. You can put your hand up and get a ride. They’re not supposed to pick up street hails. That’s for the yellow cabs. Now the yellow cabs are being squeezed by Uber and Lyft. Now they’re kinda understanding what the jitney drivers were going through, competing with them. But it really wasn’t a competition then. You barely ever saw a yellow cab in the Hill district.
In the early 80’s, late 70’s, you’d be hard-pressed to get a cab to take you above 96th Street.
In the play, you have the group of drivers with a fellowship and a brotherhood as coworkers and people of the community providing a service to the community. At that time, a lot of the yellow cabs didn’t want to serve that community. So you had unlicensed cab drivers saying “Where do you need to go?”
They were truly providing a community service. I think that’s what August is showing with the play. That there was and is a vibrant community of people who are living their lives with the fullest expression of themselves that they can.
If you leave it up to the news, they’ll snatch up one or two things that aren’t the most exemplar in a community and say, “Everyone’s like that. There’s crime there.” But crime is everywhere. For you to take these instances and betray a community that way, it’s unfair. It’s not compassionate; it’s not engaged. It’s not moral in my book.
What drew you to theater in the first place?
I didn’t become an actor or think about it until I was in college. That was after I went to the army for three years. I was in mass communication, wanted to be a journalist or sports announcer.
I would walk past the theater, and see auditions for the play. The last day, I tried out, did that play, and changed my major.
Cleveland State University.
What is it about theater that keeps you going?
A process of self-discovery. I learn more about myself by doing it. I get a chance to try on all these different characters. I learn about the character. I study their motivations. I see the world through a different set of eyes. It’s part of my spiritual practice. It helps me be a better person. It helps me be a better human being.
I pinch myself, that I get to do this.
Where I come from, no one in my family is in theater, or in the arts. “Who would have thought that I would be on a Broadway stage? People from where I am don’t do that, not in Cleveland. More than a handful of people I grew up with are dead, are drug addicts, are in prison. I wouldn’t have imagined this for myself.
Every time I take a curtain call, I thank my ancestors, who were slaves. Can you imagine I’m in a theater in the United States of America playing in front of a white, mostly white, audience? And they’re applauding for us? I imagine that family would have sooner seen a man land on the moon than that would happen. So I stand on the shoulders of a lot of people who did a lot of things and expressed their humanity in many different ways or had their humanity repressed.
I get a chance to practice living through different eyes and ears. (Laughing) Most people, I guess you have to die and be reincarnated. I don’t have to die. I just have to go to rehearsal.
It’s part of my spiritual practice. It’s no different from my mediation. It’s how I commune with spirit and, if I can help someone, it’s my contribution to the world.
What is a question you like to ask someone you’ve met for the first time?
“Tell me the name of your favorite teacher, coach or mentor, from elementary to college, ever?” I usually ask for one, maybe two. Followed up with, “Was that the easiest class?”
I love that question. It usually takes people five seconds, and they always come up with the name immediately. Everyone says “They were the hardest. They challenged me, they pushed me. They told me that I could do better and that they would not accept sub-par work.”
In another life I would have been an educator. It’s the most important job. One of the most important jobs, next to being a parent.
August Wilson’s Jitney will be performed at the Arena Stage from September 13 through October 20th.