Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

"The Best of Broadway" Series Presents
Jitney at The Curran Theater

The Best of Broadway series continues its 2001-02 season with August Wilson's powerful drama Jitney at the Curran Theatre. This is the production that played to critical acclaim at Second Stage in New York and the Mark Taper in Los Angeles with basically the same superb cast. This dramatic piece was written in 1979 and was the first play in Wilson's 10 play drama cycle exploring the African American experience in the 20th Century. Jitney was first presented in a tiny Pittsburgh theater in 1982, and then 14 years later had its profession premiere at Pittsburgh Public Theater. The play arrived the Second Stage Theatre in New York in 2000 where it received critical acclaim. It won the famed Olivier Award for the best play of the year when it played at the Royal National Theatre in London in 2001.

Jitney is set in 1977 in the rundown storefront station of a gypsy cab company in the Hill District of Pittsburgh. It depicts a group of black men who operate the unlicensed cab company. The cab shop is slated to be torn down by the city to make way for high rise apartments, and the drivers will soon be out of their jobs. At the center of the play is the troubled relationship between Becker, the head of the jitney service, and his fiercely proud son, Booster, who has recently returned from a 20 year prison sentence. The encounter between the father and son is remarkable and enthralling in its raw eloquence. The father represents a generation of respectable black fathers who have worked and struggled to give their sons better life-chances. The son believes the killing of his lying, white girlfriend was justified and now he wants to get on with his life as a free man.

Jitney presents a circle of loquacious cab drivers who just sit around fighting, joking, and thinking back on their lives in the Hill District. They play checkers, gossip about women and hash over the decline of the neighborhood. In one scene, two of the characters argue as to who is the prettiest woman in the world. One says Lena Horne and the other says Sarah Vaughn. The character who thinks Sarah is the prettier of the two says, "It's them pretty women like Lena Horne that get a man killed." The other character says "You ain't got to be pretty to get a man killed. Any woman will get a man killed if you ain't careful." Another replies with pure logic saying, "You right, that's why I don't talk about money either. Them is the two things you never hear me talk about too much. Them is the two things that get most people killed."

All of the actors are excellent in this production. There is a subplot concerning Youngblood, a self-righteous and sometimes angry young man of the new generation of blacks, and his girlfriend Rena who has a young child and who is trying to better herself. Involved in this plot is an old busy-body driver, Turnbo, who informs Rena that Youngblood is seeing a lot of Rena's younger sister. The scenes between Youngblood and Rena are full of anger - and sometimes love. Russell Andrews gives a potent performance as Youngblood, while Yvette Ganier as Rena is able to convey moments of anger, fear, aggravation, diversion and love. Turnbo, the a sanctimonious meddler, is played by Stephen McKinley Henderson.

Anthony Chisholm, who made a big impression on the television series Oz, is a droll and graceful drunk Fielding, who slurs his words when he has one nip too many. His is an amazing performance as he shuffles across the stage to answer the wall phone. Becker is played by Roger Robinson who gives the show's most demanding performance. He gives the role great dignity as an older African American who has worked hard for his family. Keith Randolph Smith plays Booster with the intensity of the new black man ready to stand up for equal rights in the world. Willis Burks as Shealy, a numbers writer, Leo V. Finnie III as Philmore, a hotel doorman, and Barry Shabake Henley as a laid-back jitney driver called Doub, all have hilarious moments.

Direction by Marion McClinton is decisive, and he allows his actors moments of silence and stillness to further the impact of the volatile scenes that occur. The set is a gem of detail. It is amazing, showing both the interior of the storefront office and the street outside with real cars parked on the street. You can see the run-down neighborhood through large plate glass windows. Also, in the background are black towering steel mill structures that go up to the top of the stage. It is one of the best sets I have seen in a long time. David Gallo has done a splendid job on this set. The lighting by Donald Holder also strikes the right mood of the play.

Jitney runs through March 31 at the Curran Theatre. Tickets range from $34 to $59 and are available at the Curran box office, 445 Geary Street; at the Orpheum Theatre box office at 1192 Market Street at 8th: through Ticketmaster by calling (415)512-7770; at all Ticketmaster ticket centers; and at For groups of 20 or more call group sales at (415)551-2020.

Cheers - and be sure to check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema

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