At Court Theatre, ‘Jitney’ moves to a stirring set of rhythms
By Hedy Weiss Theater Criticfirstname.lastname@example.org September 16, 2012 10:50PM
Anthony Fleming III (left) and A.C. Smith in "Jitney' at Court Theatre.
When: Through Oct. 14
Where: Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis
Info: (773) 753-4472; www.courttheatre.org
Updated: October 18, 2012 6:15AM
Playwright August Wilson often said that it was the storytelling of the blues, rather than the more abstract emotions of jazz, that most inspired his work. And among the many fascinating elements of Court Theatre director Ron OJ Parson’s supremely well-rendered revival of “Jitney” — the 1970s installment in Wilson’s decade-by-decade cycle of plays about the African-American experience in the 20th century — is that you can feel every form of music at play.
To be sure, Wilson’s characters, whose lives intersect in the shabby confines of Becker’s Car Service, a gypsy cab operation in Pittsburgh’s Hill district, “sing” the blues in their rhythmically charged dialogue and character-defining monologues. But Parson stitches together the play’s many scenes with period-defining pop riffs. And overall, Wilson’s play emerges as nothing less than operatic (at once tragic and comic) in both scope and substance.
“Jitney” is filled with long verbal arias about everything from the devastating sense of betrayal felt by a father whose beloved son ended up in prison, to what is needed in the relationship between a man and a woman, to a man’s sense of what will seal the deal for settling down, to the everyday moral breakdown suggested by a man stealing a television from his own grandmother. There is priceless bantering, always a hallmark of Wilson’s plays, in which even the smallest cash transactions — quick loans, money contributed to a funeral service, a few dollars given to a guy who runs the numbers — define daily existence. And there are choral-like sequences in which language itself — the great art material of the marginalized — becomes its own invaluable currency.
As in all of Wilson’s plays, race is of the essence here, even as he asserts that “the white man” is not responsible for all ills in the black community, that some things have changed for the better in society, and that responsibility ultimately rests with individual choices. That is not to say racism is not still a force. And gypsy cabs — those unlicensed taxis that fill the gap in underserved neighborhoods — are emblematic of the enduring problems.
At the heartbreaking center of “Jitney” is a shattered father-son relationship. Becker (A.C. Smith, in a searing portrayal that is just the latest of many towering performances) is a sixtysomething man of some influence who runs the cab station and, in many ways, has led an exemplary life. But that life was upended more than two decades earlier when his son, Booster (Anthony Fleming III), a promising college student, became embroiled in a racially rooted crime, was sent to prison and barely escaped a death sentence. Becker cannot forgive him. But now, released from jail, Booster aches for some sort of reconciliation.
All of the men who work for Becker (whose station is threatened with closure as the city makes noises about an urban renewal project) have their stories. Youngblood (an expertly tuned performance by Kamal Angelo Bolden), struggling to establish his manhood by purchasing a house, still lages behind his girlfriend, Rena (a neatly self-possessed Caren Blackmore), who cares for their young son, works and goes to school. And he is forever at odds with Turnbo (a wily Allen Gilmore), the old, hot-headed gossip among the drivers.
Doub (a wonderfully easy portrayal by Cedric Young) is the mature voice of reason and peacemaker among the men, while Fielding (a slyly comic Alfred Wilson), who still talks about the wife he has been estranged from for decades, has finally found his mellow spot. Shealy (a sparkling turn by Brian Weddington) is the numbers runner in the flashy pimp suits who invariably evokes a laugh, while Philmore (deft work by Andre Teamer) is the true solid citizen.
Jack Magaw’s fabulously detailed, photo-realist set (lit by Marc Stubblefield) is a full-fledged character all by itself, with Melissa Torchia’s spot-on costumes helping to define these men.
Stuffed with stories, philosophy and history, “Jitney” is like a blues song with a few too many verses. But Parson, who has corraled many of the finest black actors in the city, keeps it singing soulfully in the key of Wilson.