If you need a ride, don’t bother calling Yellow Cab, they don’t go to this neighborhood. Call the jitney station. Someone will holler “Car Service” into the phone, and you just give him your address. And if Turnbo answers the phone, you’d better be ready when he gets there. He won’t wait.
It’s 1977 in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, the same location for most of August Wilson’s American Century Cycle of plays. And while “Jitney” appears eighth in the chronology, it was the first one he wrote.
”Jitney” proved a reliable vehicle, traveling to theatres around the country, even garnering some prestigious awards before Wilson took it in for an overhaul. That 1996 revision finally appeared on Broadway in 2017 and received the Tony for Best Revival, an award that fit nicely beside its Laurence Olivier Award, the Drama Outer Circle, Drama Desk, and Obie Awards. The guys down at the station would be proud.
In classic Wilson fashion, the play is dominated by the colorful personalities who work, drink, tell stories, play checkers, bicker, and gossip under the gathering darkness of a conflict that will affect them all. But the play is the players, characters that we get to know and want to know better before it’s all done.
Directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, “Jitney” is set in a dilapidated neighborhood of families that have called the Hill District “home” for generations. David Gallo’s scene design, large scale magical realism, brings the cab station interior to life, right down to the peeling paint and the old gas can by the wall phone. Large, slightly dingy windows look out on the two sides of this corner business where an old car sits, and smoke-stained brick buildings stand, awaiting demolition.
And that’s the approaching cloud. Urban renewal. Tear down the old, built the new, broaden the tax base, upset and unsettle families with no idea of where they will go. But somehow this crisis, though two weeks away, seems remote compared to the immediacy of the lives inside the station.
Becker (Steven Anthony Jones) has found respectability and status. Having retired from the local mill, he now runs the station where jitneys, those untaxed-because-they-don’t-legally-exist cabs carry the locals on their errands. He’s the voice of reason, the one the others turn to for a sensible judgment. He also has a son just about to be released from prison for murder. When Booster (Francois Battiste) comes in to see his father after twenty years, believing himself forgiven by society, he finds himself brutally unforgiven by his father. “Jitney” is full of personal conflicts, none more profound than this deepest of struggles between father and son.
Wilson’s ear for rhythm and genius for dialogue never flag, and while the play is not a comedy, the humor, just because people can be so funny, is everywhere. Turnbo (Ray Anthony Thomas) may see himself as the resident sage, but to the others, he’s an incurable gossip. His observations on everyone else accompanied by the remark that he doesn’t get involved always brings a demand that he mind his own business – and a good laugh.
But Turnbo has his dark side and Youngblood (Amari Cheatom) knows how to find it. Something about the young Vietnam vet fries Turnbo’s grits, once to the point of violence. Youngblood has his own reasons for meeting secretly with his girlfriend’s sister and he doesn’t need Turnbo spreading trouble about it. Rena (Nija Okoro) for her part, has their two-year old son to think about and just wants Youngblood to prove his commitment to them.
If Fielding (Anthony Chisholm) can stay sober, Becker might just let him work a little longer, but that’s a big “if.” They’ve probably all heard the story of the woman he loves who he hasn’t seen in twenty-two years, but even they are surprised to learn that he was once a master tailor. And for Doub, (Keith Randolph Smith) life kind of lost its purpose after the Korean War. He piled bodies six high, came home to drive cabs, and finally learned – and tries to tell Youngblood – that whether he sends you to war or tears down your neighborhood, “the white man ain’t thinking about you.”
Becker could do without Shealy, (Harvy Blanks) who runs a numbers racket from the jitney station phone. But nothing slows down the sharp-dressed Shealy – except maybe the woman who put a curse on him. And Philmore, (Brian Coats) a doorman at the nearby hotel, only comes in when his old lady throws him out of the house and he needs a ride.
Five of the nine players performed “Jitney” on Broadway, but all are pitch perfect and keep the ensemble running like a well-oiled motor. Jane Cox’s lighting design delicately sheds the hours from early morning to late evening, and Bill Sims, Jr.’s original music haunts the stage with a touch of blues.
Whether or not the faceless juggernaut that some call progress and others call displacement will prevail is left hanging in the balance between an unexpected twist and the ringing of the wall phone. Dramatic, funny, deeply personal, “Jitney” is an extraordinary ride.
Maggie Lawrence is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association. She is a retired English and drama teacher.
WANT TO GO?
What: “Jitney” by August Wilson
Where: Arena Stage in the Kreeger Theatre, 1101 Sixth St. SW, Washington, D.C.
Call: (202) 600-4055 or visit www.arenastage.org
Playing through Oct. 20