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Chicago by John Olson

Jitney
Court Theatre

Also see Richard's review of pool (no water)

Jitney
Anthony Fleming III and
A.C. Smith

The first to be written of August Wilson's "Century Cycle" of plays depicting African-American life in separate decades of the 20th century, Jitney is less overtly historical or political than some of the other plays. Set in the 1970s, Wilson wrote Jitney in 1979 before he ever set upon the goal of writing a ten-play cycle. But even if this had been written after Wilson had his master plan for that series, I suspect it might have come out somewhat historically unspecific anyway. The '70s were, after all, a rather bland decade of respite between the social unrest of the '60s and the boom years of the '80s. While the early steps of urban renewal in the '70s following the inner city destruction caused by '60s rioting is a factor in Jitney's action, Wilson's play is much more concerned with its richly realized characters than the specific time or place. Director Ron OJ Parsons and his superb cast of eight men and one woman create such full, believable and compassionate people from Wilson's text that we're immediately drawn to them: amused by their wit, frightened by the violent tendencies, and as concerned for their futures as they are.

There are no 285-year-old women in Jitney (as is Aunt Ester in Gem of the Ocean), no flights into the supernatural (The Piano Lesson) and no mystical spells cast (Joe Turner's Come and Gone). Jitney's very traditional and accessible structure is that of a workplace drama or sitcom, with similarity to TV's "Barney Miller" in its male-centeredness, or "Taxi" in the type of workplace it depicts. These shows were on the air around the time Jitney was written and may even have been influences on Wilson, but as good as they were, if they had been written as honestly as Jitney, it would have been a second golden age of TV. Jitney's setting is the office of an unlicensed cab company, where the phone is ringing constantly and the drivers come and go, creating a sort of pulsing rhythm that propels the action.

The men are a diverse lot, but not archetypes, and Parsons' cast does a nearly perfect job of fleshing them out into real people. Their leader is Jim Becker, a former steel-mill worker who's pulled together this little cooperative of unlicensed drivers in Pittsburgh's depressed Hill District. Becker is part enforcer, part benevolent ruler, but unquestionably a man of principle. A.C. Smith masterfully creates a complex character of Becker. There's an underlying tension that seems to belie Becker's strength and stability, but erupts when his son unexpectedly returns after 20 years in prison. Becker's initial entrance is later than most of the other characters, and the ways Wilson script and Smith's performance gradually evolve him from a seemingly minor presence to the central figure of the play are master classes in acting and playwriting. By the end of the first act, in the major confrontation between Becker and his son Booster (Anthony Fleming III), Smith is a gripping presence.

The older generation of jitney drivers (jitney being Pittsburgh's term for unlicensed cabs) are either, like Becker, semi-retired, or just trying to find a way to hang on in their later years. There's the alcoholic Fielding who waffles between self-deception and self-awareness with a half-hearted attempt at sobriety, given a perfect tragic-comic portrayal by Alfred Wilson. Doub (in a warm and sensitive portrayal by Cedric Young) is a stable adult, and though less colorful than his co-workers, emerges as responsible enough, even if not a leader like Becker. The volatile busybody Turnbo, played convincingly old and fragile by actor Allen Gilmore, has enough meanness to compensate for his diminished physical capacity. He sparks a confrontation with Youngblood (Kamal Angelo Bolden), a 23-year-old married Vietnam vet struggling to buy his first home and battling rumors of infidelity against his wife Rena (Caren Blackmore).

Oddly, though Wilson at the time of his writing Jitney was closer in age to the younger characters of the play, he was more successful in writing the piece's older characters. He gives Youngblood a fascinating history (Vietnam vet, young father and husband—ambitious, yet prone to violence) but deliberately makes his motivations ambiguous in the early scenes. As Youngblood, Bolden, though giving a charismatic and totally watchable performance, struggles to put these pieces together. In fairness, I'm not at all sure that any other actor would do much better with the bag of characteristics Wilson has given him. Youngblood's wife Rena is given a sympathetic characterization (and a great '70s Afro hairdo) by Ms. Blackmore, but her big scene with Youngblood is an adequate exchange that could really have been written by any writer for any number of plays. It also includes one of the play's handful of clunky lines—I don't know all the answers ... sometimes I don't even know the questions"—that are way below the level of poetry Wilson achieves in his later plays or in most of this one.

Becker's 39-year prodigal son Booster has a great monologue in his big scene with his father, but there's little additional development of his character elsewhere. Given his importance to the plot, Booster seems rather underwritten. Though Fleming does a fine job with that speech, he has little to work with in his other scenes—which feel a bit tacked on to the play—there only to provide a conclusion to it. There are two younger minor characters as well: the jivey Shealy (Brian Weddington), a numbers-running kid decked in another great Afro and '70s disco wear; and the quiet Philmore (Andre Teamer), a hotel bellman who visits the office. Neither is developed fully. Though Jitney is concerned with a changing of the guard from one generation to the next, Wilson's balance of sympathies tilted toward the older guys keeps that theme from fully emerging.

But if Jitney is an early work by a master, its rich major characters (even counting Youngblood for Wilson's ambitiousness in drawing him), spot-on creation of a specific milieu and subculture, and smart comic lines with not a phony gag among them, make it a must see nonetheless, and not just for Wilson scholars and fans. Parsons' production (his second of Jitney this year, following a mounting of it for the Orange Coast Rep in California) gives it as good a reading as I can imagine. Kudos are due as well to Jack Magaw's realistic set, Josh Horvath's sound design which includes tasty mood-setting medleys of '70s R&B, and Joe Faust's fight choreography—realistic enough to (unintentionally, I think) knock over a sofa on opening night. Melissa Torchia's costumes are authentically in the period and place (with Steelers and Pirates apparel included), while Marc Stubblefield's lighting design effectively establish time of day and mood.

We all, or most of us probably, have grown up with the feeling that great art must in some way be challenging to experience, more "good for us" than entertaining, but Jitney is both. While it displays much evidence of the art for which Wilson is rightfully deemed a master—his wit, ability to create characters and his rich language to name a few—Jitney is, in this production, enormously entertaining as well. It's essential for those who know and love Wilson's work and a great introduction for those who don't yet.

Jitney will play at the Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Avenue on the University of Chicago campus, through October 14, 2012. Tickets are available online at www.CourtTheatre.org or by phone at 773-753-4472 or at the box office.


Photo: Michael Brosilow

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-- John Olson



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