It’s time to get “Jitney.” If you have never sat down in a live theatre to catch an August Wilson play, you’re missing a theatrical treat. Not finding a way to see any one of Wilson’s artful masterpieces is like eating pancakes without buttermilk syrup or chugging down some of mamma’s hot cornbread without a glass of iced cold milk.
And once you get a taste of what you’ve been missing you get a bellyache craving for more. This is how it is with Wilson and the plays he beautifully laminated and painted about the African American experience. “Jitney,” now playing at the Pasadena Playhouse in Pasadena, California, through July 15, is one of Wilson’s theatrical works that richly captures the essence of African American life.
“Jitney” was the first play Wilson wrote in what is known as his “Pittsburgh Cycle,” in which he depicts black life in each decade of the twentieth century. While Wilson’s highly touted “Fences” and “The Piano Lesson” earned him the coveted Pulitzer Prize, and his other works have garnered notable critical acclaim, “Jitney” is a fascinating watch of what it was like to be black living in Pittsburgh’s Hill District during the 1970s.
Set in 1977, Wilson sets the scene of “Jitney,” which made its first run in 1982 at Pittsburgh’s Allegheny Repertory Theatre, in the broken down office of unlicensed cabbies who service black customers in the neighborhood where regular cab companies don’t venture into. Jitney’s were the name of these ghost or gypsy cabs servicing black neighborhoods.
The characters set in “Jitney” are all different. They all have different lives. This is where the mastery of Wilson takes over in the play. There’s Youngblood (wonderfully played by Larry Bates), an ex-military man with a pistol temper, looking for ways to get more money to save up and buy a house for his immature and smothering wife (Kristy Johnson).
Fielding (David McKnight) is the classic drunk who values his bottle a lot more than he does about earning his keep in Becker’s (Charlie Robinson) jitney station. Shealy (Rolando Boyce) runs around the place as if it is a booking joint, operating as a numbers runner, while Doub (James A. Watson Jr.) goes about his business and tries to avoid all the nonsensical hiccups in the day-to-day operations of the company.
And what’s a company without an instigator who gets in everybody’s business and finds a way to stir the pot with the other employees. Turnbo, played exceptionally well by Ellis E. Williams (Once on This Island, Driving Miss Daisy), is the man everyone can’t stand because of his meddling ways.
What makes “Jitney” work is the dialogue between the actors. Everything is on cue. The language the actors are able to convey in “Jitney” promotes every nuances of realism to the theatrical work.
In watching “Jitney,” you feel like you’re right smack in the living room of a real jitney station with the lively back and forth banter and brotherly camaraderie. The thing about coming to an August Wilson play is that the late playwright doesn’t confuse real life with over-the-top theatrics. He keeps it simple and to the point. He doesn’t give the audience wiggle room to be comfortable.
There are scenes in “Jitney” that are volatile and explosive. The pace of the play, particularly in the first half, is fast and furious. The writing of the play is beautifully done. However, with any great storyline, the right actors have to be in place to be able to pull it off and make it work.
Robinson (Night Court, Fences) is the steady hand that guides the flow of the performance through his no-nonsense, mediating Becker character. Montae Russell brings credence to the role of Booster, Becker’s son, who tries vainly and unsuccessfully to re-connect with his distant and unforgiving father after a 20-year stint in prison.
But what really makes “Jitney” a masterful work is the powder keg relationship between Youngblood and Turnbo. Both Bates and Williams turn in electric performances in “Jitney.” Interestingly enough, “Jitney” begins and ends with the two rivals playing checkers as if they were lifelong bosom buddies.
In between the beginning and finale sequence, the two men ignite a tense and fractious standoff, all while Becker worries about his jitney station going under due to the forces of urban redevelopment. “Jitney” is a play worth-seeing. Not just because it is an August Wilson play, but because black life have never been told better.