August Wilson’s “Jitney”: African-American life, distilled
Nobody wants their personal business out in the streets, but that’s just where it is in August Wilson’s Jitney, as performed by Andre Lee Ellis & Company.
In the 1970s, taxicabs would not serve Pittsburgh’s Hill District, a black neighborhood. The play tells the story of a group of men who pulled together to serve their community and to hustle for themselves by driving unlicensed cabs, called jitneys. Wilson pushes the lives of those who walk through the shabby jitney station into our own. He tells it like it is, in vivid vernacular.
Former tailor Fielding (John Payne) has a hopeless – albeit comic – dependence on alcohol. Doub (Eric Parr) is a long-time jitney driver and Korean War vet who never quite made it in life. Neighborhood gossip Turnbo (Corey Wilson) weaves himself into and out of the lives of others, often clashing and crashing, and more than once pulling out a pistol.
Turnbo especially provokes Youngblood (Dimonte Henning), a young Vietnam vet struggling to distance himself from an unscrupulous past and to take care of the love of his life, Rena (Tyra Lea). A shrewd and caring young mother, Rena is losing trust in her boyfriend.
Becker (Mario Alberts), the well-respected jitney station manager, serves as a father figure to everyone who walks through its door – except his own son, the unrepentant Booster (Kemaine Holland). Booster has come home after 20 years in prison. Becker also shoulders resistance to the city’s ominous threat to board up the neighborhood.
The humor relieves frequent eruptions of fiery conflict. Throaty shouting expressed this anger, and performers’ endurance impressed. But anger doesn’t always shout – it paces and postures, tenses muscles, strains breath, stares down, and even whispers. The company could have made their characters’ anger more varied and nuanced.
Nonetheless, it was clear that the audience was all in for the whole ride. During Youngblood’s entreaty to Rena, one sympathetic patron rooted audibly for him. Henning and Lea had great on-stage chemistry and gave compelling performances throughout.
Jitney (1982), represents the 1970s in Wilson’s cycle of 10 plays, each representing a decade of 20th-century African-American experience. Wilson wrote Jitney first. It remains relevant and real. Its characters speak of our business and travel our streets.
Artistic Director André Lee Ellis made this connection explicit when, before the show began, he called up on stage the oldest audience member – 95-year-old Harambee Community Activist Momma Donna – and the youngest audience member – 10-year-old Kavon Davison.
“This is my gift to you,” Ellis said, dedicating the performance to Kavon and to “all the young black brothers out there.” At the end of the night, Ellis once again pulled Kavon onstage and asked him to sum up the play’s meaning. The precocious young man said: “This play is about how life is goin’ on right now and how people should change.”
Jitney runs through Feb. 5 at Marcus Center Vogel Hall. For tickets and further information, call the Marcus Center box office, 414 273-7206, or visit the Marcus Center website.