Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: St. Louis

Jitney
The St. Louis Black Repertory

Review by Richard T. Green


Ron Himes and Olajuwon Davis
Photo by Philip Hamer
Long before the days of Uber and Lyft, you could call a taxi cab if you didn't have a car or didn't want to drive yourself. But if you lived in the Hill District in Pittsburgh, where cabbies were afraid they'd be robbed (in the mid-1970s), you might call an unlicensed "car service" instead. And they'd send out a sort of informal, independent contractor to pick you up, in a "gypsy cab," or "jitney." In August Wilson's play Jitney, written in 1979 (and re-written in 1996), these drivers take us on a theatrical journey entirely within the office of one such car service. And a sense of place and personhood gradually accretes and towers over us, under the direction of The St. Louis Black Repertory founder Ron Himes, at the Edison Theatre on the Washington University campus in St. Louis.

As with Wilson's Two Trains Running, or Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, a seemingly loose series of stories and speeches quicken into a living fable here. Broad historical narratives emerge, seemingly from thin air, or from the crammed storage space in the backs of our minds. Black identity is passed down to a new generation, in part as an "equal and opposite reaction" to the horrific murder of Emmett Till just 24 years earlier. But, before that torch can be passed, we must gain an understanding of the generation that was caught in between, which stretched from the Korean War to Brown v. Board of Education to 1964 and beyond.

The new Black Rep staging gives each of the half dozen men on stage (over the age of 40) an aura of wisdom, a fresh wizardly quality, as the story gradually snowballs. Kevin Brown is excellent as Becker, the manager of the service: keeping order with a broad range of interpersonal skills, with "human resources" techniques that range from the delicate to the diplomatic to the despotic. Director Himes is hilarious (and utterly transformed) as Turnbo, the gossipy driver who helps keep the narrative spinning for two and a half hours.

J. Samuel Davis is alternately self-assured and pleading as Fielding, the alcoholic driver. And seldom-seen Robert A. Mitchell is absolutely great: stylish and naturalistic as the numbers-running Shealy. Edward L. Hill brings everyone back to Earth again and again as Doub, with a grisly war story from his past. And Richard Harris does nicely as an occasional passenger, Philmore.

The two "next generation" characters are Youngblood (Olajuwon Davis) and Booster (Phillip Dixon). Youngblood is one of the drivers, who faces a romantic crisis after intermission, and Booster is Becker's son, just released from prison after a death sentence is commuted to twenty years behind bars. Both are excellent, with Mr. Davis' Youngblood seemingly besieged by troubles common to all young men, and Mr. Dixon's Booster evasively mild but very convincing as a fellow whose great, promising childhood took a horrible turn when he was 19 years old.

Alex Jay is very good as Youngblood's girlfriend Rena, a determined young woman in colorful 1970s dress. But her big scene with Mr. Davis in act two is startlingly static. It appears the long conversation, in which Youngblood must win back Rena, the mother of his son, was directed by the young actors themselves. The scene lacks peaks and valleys, or even movement in general. They're obviously fine actors with good stage experience, but their dialog in that long stretch has no obvious discovery or obstacle or spontaneity. It'll probably be fine after a few more performances, but the scene as played on this night would have been virtually meaningless if the volume had been turned down.

Otherwise, this Jitney is a grand show, full of easy style and pained discussions of hard fates. It's especially grand if you ever wondered what older Black men were talking about right before you (as a white person) walked into the room, and they suddenly fell silent. It is a piercing look inside a heartfelt and sometimes troubled world.

Jitney runs through May 29, 2022, at the Edison Theatre, Washington University, 6465 Forsyth Blvd., St. Louis MO. For more information visit www.theblackrep.org.

Cast:
Becker: Kevin Brown
Fielding: J. Samuel Davis*
Youngblood: Olajuwon Davis
Booster: Phillip Dixon
Philmore: Richard Harris
Doub: Edward L. Hill
Turnbo: Ron Himes
Rena: Alex Jay
Doub Understudy: Brian McKinley
Shealy: Robert A. Mitchell

Production Staff:
Director: Ron Himes**
Dramaturg/Assistant Director: Dr. John "Ray" Proctor
Assistant Director: Nychollete Easter
Scenic Designer: Harlan D. Penn
Lighting Designer: Joseph W. Clapper
Sound Designer: Justin Schmitz
Costume Designer: Jamie Bullins
Stage Manager: Tatiana Durant*
Technical Director: Bryce Allen
Master Carpenter: Phillip Dixon
Master Electrician: Christian Kitchens
Costume Shop Supervisor: Ellen Minch
Costume Shop Assistant: Kristen Gray
Covid Safety Manager: Crayton Clendon

* Denotes Member, Actors Equity Association

** Denotes Member, the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers, Inc.


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