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Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Penumbra Theatre
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's recent reviews of Finding Fish and The Parchman Hour

Abdul Salaam El Razzac and Terry Bellamy
Photo by Allen Weeks
I am convinced that no American playwright has created characters that speak with greater truth than August Wilson. These men and women span the twentieth century African-American experience in Wilson's monumental century series, a full length play for each decade. The first of those to be staged was Jitney, set in the 1970s, currently receiving a production drenched in consummate talent and lovingkindness at the Penumbra Theatre.

Jitney was first produced in 1982 in Pittsburgh, the city where Wilson grew up and where all but one of his century plays are set. A production at Penumbra Theatre followed in 1984. Penumbra had staged the first professional production of the August Wilson play Black Bart and the Sacred Hills in 1981 when Wilson was living in the Twin Cities, an active in its theater community including the Playwright's Center and Penumbra. The current production, directed by Penumbra's founder, co-Artistic Director, and a master interpreter of Wilson's work Lou Bellamy is then a homecoming of sorts, but one sadly missing the playwright who died in 2005 at the age of 60.

A jitney is an unlicensed taxi. All the action in Jitney takes place in the shabby storefront office of a jitney agency in the Hill District, the historic black neighborhood in the shadow of downtown Pittsburgh where Wilson grew up and where he set most of his plays. The drivers take turns answering calls from customers requesting a ride to the grocery store, the train station, or anywhere else. The office is run by Becker (James Craven), whose team of drivers include Turbo (Terry Bellamy), a gossip and a crank; wizened and wise Daub (Abdul Salaam El Razzac); Fielding, who struggles against the ever present bottle (Marcus Naylor); and Youngblood (Derrick Mosley), a returned-from Vietnam vet striving for a better life with his girlfriend Rena (Jasmine Hughes) and their child. Dropping in and out of the office are Shealy (Kevin D. West), a slick numbers runner who uses the jitney office phone to conduct his business, and Philmore (T. Mychael Rambo), a constantly soused doorman at a nearby hotel.

Two converging events bring upheaval to the routine of the jitney office. Becker has learned that in only two weeks the building housing their office will be boarded up, a victim of urban renewal. Can they find a new office, will the men split up to work for other agencies, will they be out of work altogether? They work "off the books," so there is no unemployment insurance for them. Becker also learns this day that his son Booster (James T. Alfred) has been released from prison after serving twenty years for murder. In all that time Becker never once visited his son. He blames Booster for his mother's death after Booster was sentenced to the electric chair—the sentence subsequently commuted, but only after Becker had lost his wife and Booster his mother. The resolution of these twin crises come with dramatic turns that are surprising, yet feel pre-ordained, organic responses to life's harsh realities that manages to offer a shred of hope.

Lou Bellamy was an eye witness to August Wilson's career and knows the landscape of his plays. Every gesture, every exit and entrance, every move from one side of the cluttered jitney office to another, has the feel of authenticity. We are not watching actors on a stage in a pretend jitney office, we are in the corner of that office, watching and listening to real people grapple with life, using humor, wit, bluster, logic, and any other tool they can muster.

It is impossible to imagine a stronger cast, with every role played as if the actors had been abducted by UFOs and replaced by these characters in the flesh. James Craven's Becker is most central to the storyline. He portrays the leadership Becker has assumed, if not sought, as his crew of drivers expect him to take care of everything for them, along with the profound heartbreak, anger and shame that cloud his relationship with Booster. Booster is played by James T. Alfred as a man battered by his own poor judgement but hopes to start over, only to be wounded anew by the wall his father has erected between them.

Derrick Mosley as Youngblood and Jasmine Hughes (returning to Penumbra after her Ivey Award winning performance in Sunset Baby last season) as Rena convey how hard it is to build a life together with trust and love, even with the best of intentions. Terry Bellamy is terrific at being the most obnoxious guy in the room as Turnbo, managing to mine a raft of humor in the role, while Abdul Salaam El Razzac is pitch perfect as Daub, the elder of the group who has seen enough in his time to let the little slights bounce off, and to abide the flaws in his fellow man even as he calls them out. He is exquisite when telling Youngblood "How can the white man be against you? The white man doesn't even know you exist," spoken with wisdom garnished with bitterness.

The physical production is wonderful. Vicki Smith's set design creates just the right degree of decay to explain why this building probably should be torn down, while filling it with signs of past life, such as the archaic Coca Cola machine, a card table that looks like it is held together with spit, mismatched chairs, a space heater hanging from the ceiling, a coffee pot buried in a pile to indicate it has been a long time since it was put to use. Matthew LeFebvre's costumes perfectly convey urban 1970s styles, with numbers runner Shealy's uber-flashy suits conveying his "elevated" station. Don Darnutzer's lighting adjusts subtly to convey shifts and focus and mood, while Martin Gwinup's sound design includes music that brings the '70s rushing back to mind. I wouldn't have a thing changed.

Wilson addresses the conflict between a new generation trying to define itself as being other than the old, the cycle of renewal in urban America and those left behind it its wake, a young man's struggle to prove himself able to shoulder responsibility, the value of second chances, whether a man has been in Vietnam or in prison, and the crucial importance of community. The Hill District setting provides a specific location that stamps reality on these universal themes.

Jitney is the only one of Wilson's Century Cycle plays to have never been on Broadway, a slight that will soon be corrected with a production by the Manhattan Theatre Club due to open in January. If their production is as heartrending, funny, well-informed, and all-out rock solid as the current mounting by Penumbra, it will win hosannas from the New York critics. Twin Cities audiences are privileged to have the opportunity to see this great play in an exceptional production right here, and are advised not to miss it.

Jitney continues through November 13, 2016, at Penumbra Theatre, 270 North Kent Street, Saint Paul, MN. Tickets are $40.00; Seniors (age 62 and up), $35.00; Students with valid ID - $15.00 (one ticket per ID). For tickets call 651-224-3180 or go to

Writer: August Wilson; Director: Lou Bellamy; Scenic Design: Vicki Smith; Costume Design: Matthew LeFebvre; Lighting Design: Don Darnutzer; Sound Design: Martin Gwinup; Properties: Sarah Bradner; Stage Manager: Mary K. Winchell; Assistant Stage Manager: Charles Fraser.

Cast: James T. Alfred (Booster), Terry Bellamy (Turnbo), James Craven (Becker), Abdul Salaam El Razzac) Jasmine Hughes (Rena), Derrick Mosley (Youngblood), T. Mychael Rambo (Philmore), Marcus Naylor (Fielding), Kevin D. West (Shealy), Ahanti Young (Philmore - alternate).

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