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A CurtainUp Review
By Brad Bradley
With the focus of August Wilson's Jitney being unlicensed cab drivers in the city of Pittsburgh, New Yorkers even superficially aware of our current metropolitan news will of course have added reason to have empathy for Wilson's richly drawn ensemble of workers. His drivers are not facing the tragic and frightening circumstances of the livery cabbies in the local news, yet their very imperfect lives become unforgettably vivid to us long before play's end.
Jitney actually is Wilson's first play, written in and about the late 1970s in Pittsburgh's Hill District. Like most Wilson plays, this one has undergone heavy revision through assorted pre-New York appearances in regional theaters. But unusually, this one stayed in the desk as an unknown one-act for two decades and only recently has been expanded and brought to the stage.
In Jitney, urban renewal is hanging over the head of the cab station's owner, Becker, whose ramshackle station has been marked for demolition just as his estranged son is about to return home after serving 20 years in prison on a murder conviction. The reunion between Becker and his son is impressive indeed, with the release of two decades of raw emotion between the two. Paul Butler as Becker gives a quietly convincing yet powerful performance. As his son Booster, Carl Lumbly, while making all the right moves, still seems much too polished and debonair to be a Becker, especially considering he's been in jail since age 19.
While demolition, murder and incarceration would seem to suggest a very plotty drama, Jitney hangs much more on its atmosphere, presenting extraordinary verisimilitude in its picturesque portrayal of this particular group of struggling African-American men. Much of the play springs from the differing personalities of the drivers, and their varying levels of compliance with Becker's four rules: "n;o overcharging, keep your car clean; no drinking ;" and "be courteous."
This fairly long play is best at its core, when the characters are established and their behavior is most natural and involving. Its beginning presents auditory difficulties, at least for folks not closely in tune with strong African-American dialect, and the ending feels forced with the demise of one character and the changed behavior of another both coming out of nowhere. In between the drama's relatively flimsy bookends, director McClinton's tight production provides appropriate pacing to insure that the characterizations are powerful, and even touching in certain moments. While the ensemble nature of the group is natural and intended, Anthony Chisholm is especially unforgettable as Fielding, an incorrigible but amiable drunk with a wonderful whiskey voice.
David Gallo's stunning set is a notable asset for Wilson's naturalistic rhythms, presenting not only the inside of the dispatching station but also the street outside with three actual automobiles parked at the sidewalk. A lot of expense and effort is evident, and while jaw-dropping, Gallo's work enhances the play.
In summary, Jitney's flaws are worth enduring. If only Wilson would accept some aggressive dramaturgy, his writing would come so much closer to greatness. Here, it is at least mostly provocative and compelling, rendering fairly good drama, especially when compared with what else is currently available.