"Jitney"is an admirable example of August Wilson's complete mastery of the craftsmanship of traditional dramatic writing. Not since Eugene O'Neill has a playwright been as celebrated and commercially successful, not simply for individual plays, but for a body of work of substance, impact and appeal. Written in 1979, "Jitney" is the first of Wilson's decade plays, which he revised in 1996. The result of that arrives in Seattle essentially intact from its off-Broadway and London productions.
The story line of "Jitney" is pretty simple. Becker (Roger Robinson) operates a jitney service, an unlicensed, semi-illegal taxi company to serve those neighborhoods where other cabs wouldn't go. He's a good man, the sort of solid, hard working small businessman who not only provides for his family, but also creates job opportunities to others in his neighborhood. Today is a day like most others, with one exception. His son, Booster (Keith Randolph Smith) is coming back after 20 years in prison. Their reunion, and all the implications of it on Becker, his world and his friends, forms the storyline.
The plot never seems hyped or artificial, neither larger than life nor any less significant than those common moments which mark the greatest meanings in ordinary life. The time and place, Pittsburg in 1977, is so accurate and complete that we always know where we are, but the context is as a part of the flesh and blood of real people, not some contrived artifice. The brilliant set by David Gallo submerges us in an urban forest of rust and decay, but a place still somehow beautiful and exotic in its harsh lines and cold hues. The sound design, by Rob Milburn, accents appropriate period music with an atmosphere of everyday sound and clatter, again reinforcing without ever drawing attention to itself.
At the core, however, is not a place or a time, but people. As Becker, Roger Robinson has all the decency, informality and strength of character to make him an obvious leader of the community. He also has all the fragile hope and bitter disappointment, all the frustration and expectation and ego to make him a convincing father. Given the strength of his son, and the time in life when they re-connect, a good part of the power of the drama is the result of two mature and independent men meeting in the full consequence of their lives, rather than with any hint of trite father-child roles. During a brilliant confrontational monologue at the end of Act One, Becker becomes a raging voice for every father who has ever lived through a heartbreaking child, only to live with an adult no longer subject to his influence. Powerful and tinted by human frailty, it was one of those theatrical events that leaves an audience breathless.
Just as important as Becker is Keith Randolph Smith as the prodigal son. His strength and dignity make his history ring with authority. His task is a delicate balance of creating a character that remains a mystery while suggesting all that we need to know about his life and what the failure of this critical relationship means to it. In the same way that the father breaks off an important conversation before the son can say whatever vital thing we will never hear, so too we learn almost nothing about a man whom we sense it would have been important to know.
Central as these two characters are, the entire community of the play is equally vital, and the roles are all beautifully drawn and detailed. Russell Andrews fills the character called Youngblood with such vitality and male sexual energy that he became a lightning rod to everyone else's masculinity. Anthony Chisholm gives us a finely crafted role as a man for whom the bottle has made his every step a downhill slide into oblivion, albeit with still a bit of a kick in his step. Stephen McKinley Henderson plays Turnbo as a man who is always right on the verge of trying to outgun a world that seems to be waiting to ambush him, for no reason he can imagine. Barry Shabaka Henley is both wise and tender as a mature voice of the group, and Willis Burks II and Leo V. Finnie III each bring distinction and balance to the ensemble. As the only female on stage, Yvette Ganier was substantive and vital in balancing the forces of a male world, and reminding us of the power of all those women off-stage whom we do not see. She is also more than capable of matching Youngblood's vitality and sex appeal.
In the end, "Jitney" is a play about friendship, and community, and family, and ambition and society. More than that, though, the central thing this play is about (to my mind), the central question that runs through the play, and through each of the characters is, "Who is responsible?" The breadth and importance of that question, as well as the variety and depth of its several answers, makes this play resonant and satisfying. Director Marion McClinton has a perfect ear for these rhythms, and a perfect grasp of these people. August Wilson has the final piece of the puzzle, and the one thing all playwrights want more than anything else, more than success, more than accolades and riches. He has authenticity. He's the real thing, as is this play.
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