Also see Susan's review of Richard III
August Wilson's plays use character development, specifically depicted in the form of storytelling, to convey the sense of a changing African-American community. If Wilson's work is to come to life, the production requires both a strong director and capable actors who can keep the rich, poetic language from becoming just a lot of words, and also can form a strong ensemble.
The production of Wilson's play Jitney now at Ford's Theatre in Washington has both: director Jennifer L. Nelson, who keeps any one component of the play from overshadowing any other, and a well-matched cast.
Wilson's "Pittsburgh Cycle" of 10 plays examines the African-American experience in the 10 decades of the twentieth century, all but one set in the playwright's hometown of Pittsburgh. Jitney takes place in 1977 at a jitney (unlicensed taxi) station in the city's Hill District, where a diverse group of men struggle to make their livings in a time of economic recession.
Jim Becker (Frederick Strother), owner of the jitney business, is a successful man in his community, a leader of his church, and a longtime steelworker now retired and living on a pension. He serves as the nucleus holding the drivers together, scrupulously fair and determined to do right by his men. He's also dealing with his own conflict: his son Booster (Craig Wallace) has just been released after 20 years in prison for murder, and is trying to fit back into society.
The drivers have their own interpersonal dramas. Turnbo (Doug Brown) gossips between going out on runs; Doub (Cleo Reginald Pizana) is fairly easy-tempered, proud of his service in the Korean War; Fielding (David Emerson Toney) gets through the day with the help of liquor; and Youngblood (KenYatta Rogers) is determined to make a better life for his girlfriend, Rena (Jessica Frances Dukes), and their child.
While the cast has no real weak links, the strongest performances come from Strother, who dominates with quiet dignity; Wallace, whose Booster is determined to become a man worthy of his father's good opinion; Brown, with Turnbo filling the emptiness in his own life by studying the people around him; and Rogers, as the Vietnam veteran with advantages the older men never had. Toney is at his best when he understates the character's inebriation, and Michael Anthony Williams amuses as a numbers runner who hangs out in the station.
Tony Cisek's set cleverly merges the realistic with the stylized. The jitney station comes to life with its mismatched furniture, large windows and the grimy walls of an industrial building soon to be condemned by the city. The exterior is a more expressionistic vision of signs and billboards, conveying the sense of a crowded, busy urban neighborhood.
Reggie Ray's costume design brings the excesses of the 1970s to hilarious life. Here are patchwork plaid shirts, powder blue leisure suits, sport jackets in bright red and mustard yellow, and checked shirts worn with striped pants.