When the opening moments of a play are a super loud blast of bluesy music and a checkers game on the verge of anarchy, you know you are in for a lively ride. But it was the acting in Jitney, Arena Stage’s 70th season opener, that blew me away. This ensemble of nine fabulous actors gives authentic voice to Pulitzer-Prize winning playwright August Wilson’s great American storytelling.
Jitney won the 2017 Tony for Best Revival of Play under the sensitive direction of Ruben Santiago-Hudson. Many of the same actors are in Arena Stage’s production with Santiago-Hudson again directing.
Set in Pittsburgh in the late 1970s, (August Wilson grew up in Pittsburgh), this American classic shines a bright light on the universality of the pain and glory of the African American experience. Taxis often didn’t want to take fares in Black neighborhoods, so unlicensed “jitney” cab operations sprung up not only for transportation, but they also became centers of stability, resilience, relationships, and community.
Jitney tells the story of the drivers who inhabit a rundown neighborhood office building that houses a jitney operation. Its colorful cast of mostly male characters share their everyday lives through dramatic stories about relationships with their families, their women, their anguished pasts, their future hopes and dreams—but always tempered with the reality of what it means to be Black in America.
They bicker, gossip, fuss, and fight (with a few real fist fights for good measure), but always with a deep sense of connection. They know that they need each other because gentrification in the form of urban renewal is threatening to bulldoze their building and to destroy their existence and way of life.
The tensions between Jim Becker and Booster – a father and son – and Youngblood and Rena – a young unmarried couple with a little boy – form the crux of themes about family and relationships in Jitney.
Steven Anthony Jones as Becker, the respected manager and owner of the jitney operation, gives a simply stellar performance as a bulwark of stability. His strained relationship with his son Booster, however, who is just being released from jail after doing 20 years for killing his white girlfriend, shows us the dark side of how familial hope can turn to despair only to be redeemed through tragedy and forgiveness.
As Booster, Francois Battiste is pathos personified. He loves his father despite being disowned by him. Jane Cox’s dramatic spotlights encapsulate Booster’s silent, gut-wrenching pain as Battiste gives a powerful, tear-jerking performance as the rejected son who finally comes into his own manhood when tragedy strikes Becker.
Amari Cheatom is hot-blooded but earnest as Youngblood, a 20-something Viet Nam vet who wants a better life for his family and is working several jobs undercover for a reason disclosed only later in the show. His girlfriend Rena, played with an ambitious but sincere charm by Nija Okoro, doesn’t trust Youngblood who has betrayed her in the past. Redemption and starting over are themes that trigger events in their relationship that lead to hope and change.
Other drivers and personalities frequent the jitney station and keep the smack talk and jibber jive going.
Anthony Chisholm gives an over-the-top performance as Fielding, a lovable alcoholic and former top-flight tailor to Billy Eckstine and other musical greats of a bygone era, whose drinking almost drives him out of the car pool.
Turnbo is too funny as a driver with an insatiable urge to get into people’s business. He finds out that curiosity can turn into a tryst at gunpoint when his nosiness goes too far. Ray Anthony Thomas is terrific as Turnbo, a motor-mouthed busybody.
Doub, played by Keith Randolph Smith with sensible caution, is a Korean War vet who lends a steadying hand in the jitney station. Brian D. Coats gives a fine straight-arrow performance as Philmore, a local hotel doorman who prides himself on never missing a day or being late for work but is a frequent jitney passenger when his woman throws him out of the house.
Harvy Blanks is Shealy, a jazzy, Sportin’ Life personality who uses the jitney station phone to run his numbers bookie business but is a pain in the side for Becker who wants to keep him off the premises.
Jitney was probably a dramaturg’s and scenic designer’s (David Gallo) delight with stage props and set décor highlighting the Pittsburg Pirates, an Ebony magazine with Lena Horne on the cover amidst a set of dilapidated art deco furnishings.
The characters in Jitney fill the colorful form but the ups and downs of life itself provide the dramatic function in a first-rate production about making a way out of no way. Jitney takes the bull by the horns with burst-out-loud humor that tickles the heart. Not to be missed.
Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes with a 15-minute intermission.