It’s All in the Details

by Bryan Reesman
Designer David Gallo
Designer David Gallo

Scenic Designer David Gallo Brings '70’s Pittsburgh to Life for August Wilson’s Jitney

For Tony-Award-winning scenic designer David Gallo, creating the set for the Broadway debut of August Wilson’s Jitney staged at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre was like stepping into history. Many of the painted elements were distressed, many props alluded to the past, and the set was imbued with a sense of location history. He believes that designers have an incredible responsibility when working on such shows; in this case, it takes place in the Hill District of Pittsburgh in the fall of 1977.

“You are responsible for designing what the set is and what the environment is, and you’re completely responsible for what it was,” explains Gallo. “You’re pretty much responsible for what it is going to be in the future, the implication of what it can be in the future. Then you’ve got the moment in time that is being captured on stage by the play itself.”

Jitney tells the story of a multigenerational, African-American car service in Pittsburgh. Becker the older owner is facing the reality that the building they reside in may get purchased, and he also has to deal with his son returning from jail after 20 years of incarceration for murder. Employees in the station grapple with various issues, from relationship quandaries to financial stress to interpersonal squabbles and outside racial tensions. Given the current social upheaval in America, it is a timely revival.

Jitney  photo credit:Joan Marcus

Gallo worked on the off-Broadway production in 1997 that, as he recalls, eventually played dozens of regional theatres across the country and won numerous awards before returning to Manhattan as well as playing at the National Theatre in Great Britain in 2001. The show was a great experience for him, which also meant he felt this incarnation had a lot to live up to, but he was also elated to return to it along with some of the same cast. (Of his previous scenic design, the Guardian UK wrote: “[It] boasts a fine set by David Gallo: the charcoal outlines of factory chimneys and mine shafts remind us of Pittsburgh’s industrial base.”)

He says that both productions were inspired by the artwork and collages of one of Wilson’s biggest artistic influences, Romare Bearden. “For the production in ‘97, I tried to make it as flat as possible, as an unpeeled collage so there was stage depth when necessary,” recalls Gallo. “I tried to make it feel like a living Bearden collage that was relatively successful. It was much more fragmented and a lot more abstract, and the color choices were very bold. The rapidly changing scale from one object to the next was very successful.”

While such elements were also a part of this production, Gallo says that he realigned the ground plan completely so that he focused on what he considers to be the most important scenic element of the show, the windows that wrap around the set to reveal the sloping Hill District outside. “Being a more dimensional version that has a lot more detail and a lot more layering to it, the ground plan is a little bit more coherent,” he says.

In real life, the Hill District is truly askew. Gallo notes that there is no place that one can stand and claim it is level ground as it’s always going up or down. “It’s a fairly complicated topography, and the buildings and the streets are laid on top of each other and constantly changing in depth and height,” he elaborates. “It’s really quite something. I spent a lot of time in the Hill District so it’s not unfamiliar.”

Appropriately, the landscape outside and inside the set mirrors that unevenness. The jitney station on stage is located on a slope that starts at approximately five and a half feet high at stage left, sloping down to the center, which is under three feet high at the central doorway, and then tabling down to the floor at stage right. The street behind heading into the background towards the mills of Pittsburgh slopes down to stage level, and the jitney station is raked as well. Gallo says that the set up makes sense given that the jitney station is basically cut into the side of the hill.

There are two cars located outside on each side of the door where the street corner wraps around the station. They are beat up shells of actual cars, including a 1976 Chevy Nova and a 1968 Comet, which were harder to procure than one might think. When he did Jitney two decades ago, Gallo just went to a junkyard and picked out some cars, but buying junky cars has become more expensive, which he feels is a strange turnabout. “We had almost no selection,” he admits. “Just finding American sedans that were crappy enough so we could buy them for reasonable amounts of money and modify them was very hard. It blew my mind. In ‘97 it wasn’t a big deal.”

Gallo says the cars were important both to himself and director Ruben Santiago-Hudson. He feels the cars reflect the reality of the situation for the residents of Pittsburgh back then. “You could see how beat-up they are,” he says. “Just keeping your car going used to be a huge part of life, and this production brilliantly shows the story of [the character] Youngblood and the fact that he’s fixing these cars. There is an entire area of the jitney station where he has all his tools and parts, because he is a big part of keeping them running. I think seeing the cars gave us a striking sense of realism.”

Jitney  photo credit: Joan Marcus

Properties supervisor Scott Laule and Gallo’s scenic associate Ann Beyersdorfer pulled together all the props. “We sourced the props in the normal way, but once they got incorporated into the show everything got painted and distressed and painted again and matched,” explains Gallo. “There was a lot going on, especially in the paint—layers and layers and layers. It’s really kind of amazing. The paint that’s on that set took a long time to get where it is—the distressing, then more color, then more distressing.”

This process took the two weeks that they had in the scenery shop. Once they got into the venue, they did several touchups. “All the props that went up had to get painted back down again,” says Gallo. “That stuff has about eight different vintages and scotch tape holding things to the walls. I’m not kidding. We have three different rolls of scotch tape—the clear kind, the frosty kind; all different kinds. I had a half a dozen different types of markers, so we would put something up with scotch tape and decide how long it had been there. We would use different markers to age it depending upon how long we thought the object had been on the wall. Then we put another object and a newer vintage than that on top of that, and we put more paint. A lot of love went into it. A lot of layers and a lot of history. Everything on that stage is all about history.”

Having worked on other August Wilson productions in the Pittsburgh Cycle, which comprises 10 plays that each take place in a different decade of the 20th Century, Gallo is used to putting much of that history onstage. “With this production of Jitney, I was less conscious of putting all that baggage on stage, but there are a few really nice show-specific things,” he notes.

Located on stage right atop the bathroom are some old cardboard boxes, one of which is for Alaga syrup. That syrup brand was plastered on the deteriorating billboard that was behind the set for King Hedley II. “Breakfast syrup was a big part of black culture at one time because it was so thick and heavy that you would give it to your kids and they wouldn’t be hungry all day,” says Gallo. “That’s just so incredible to me.”

While Jitney is not as heavy on references to other shows, the history of the location itself is well represented. Gallo says the words “Ladies Hairdresser” painted on the front door allude to the space’s former use as a beauty shop, while meat cutting charts and grating in the floor reveals a past as a butcher shop. Despite implementing these realistic details, Gallo says the set is not realistic, particularly the I-beams that jut up through the absent roof. He feels that those unbroken beams are “the bones of Pittsburgh, they’re very strong. It’s a steel town.”

The most important set piece—the lone phone in the office that rings regularly throughout the show thanks to a sound effects device located behind it—is a working pay phone attached to one of the beams. “I put the phone right on the most solid thing on that stage that’s not a human being,” says Gallo. “That phone is permanently attached to that enormous steel beam that jitney owner Becker could have made or his grandfather could have made. It was very important to me to see that steel, even though it’s not necessarily the most realistic design choice for a place like that.”

What looks like a painted drop of the neighborhood behind the windows is mostly a printed surround that’s a collage of photographs of the Hill District taken by Gallo along with some historical photos. The composite was painted on top, by hand in Gallo’s version of the Bearden style, and he says no computers were involved in its creation. But due to budget cuts it was not quite what he desired.

“It doesn’t quite have the pop or vibrancy that I wanted it to have,” admits Gallo. “It’s actually a real disappointment to me, but it’s a great representation and a really nice job. I just wanted it more hand-painted. That’s a minor complaint.”

The fleur-de-lis wallpaper in the jitney station is one of Gallo’s favorite details, and he included it in the 1997 production. “It’s one of my favorite weird details that you get in certain American interiors,” he says. “It’s incredibly rare. I’ve seen it in real life once and in research twice, so that’s good enough for me to use it. The walls are painted plywood. The amount of painting and detail that went on top of this is mind-blowing.”

Gallo says that a surprising amount of the set is actually made of wood, which is unusual in this era of steel constructions surfaced with plywood and other materials. The I-beams onstage for Jitney are made of plywood. He says he bonded with the scenery shop over this approach, especially as they do not make many sets like this anymore.

“This is what we all got into the business to do,” states Gallo. “We all do these high-tech shows with all sorts of fancy automation, scenery, computers, and motion control, and at the end of the day we hired one of the biggest companies in the world to build a set made out of wood and paint and canvas in the middle of this gigantic factory. It really meant something to me and meant something to them.”  SD