Regional Reviews: 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.
* Denotes Member, Actors Equity Association
** Denotes Member, the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers, Inc.