nytheatre.com review by Melanie N. Lee
March 19, 2011
I had the pleasure of meeting playwright August Wilson at the Langston Hughes Library in Queens many years ago, and I'm awed that he finished his planned cycle of ten plays, each set in a different decade of the 20th century, just before he died in 2005. So I went to The Gallery Players' production of Jitney, the first of these plays, set in the 1970s, expecting to be enthralled throughout. Much of the audience was, giving a standing ovation at the end. My brother, one of those who stood, became so involved he was anticipating and speaking a couple of lines, such as "up in my business!" I enjoyed much of this production, but found some moments lagging in energy, and some of the play lacking theatricality.
Jitney—a word for a gypsy cab—is set in a rundown dispatcher's office in the Hill District of Pittsburgh—like most of Wilson's "Century Cycle" plays—in the fall of 1977. This slice-of-life story concerns five African American cab drivers fielding calls for cabs from the pay phone on the wall, commiserating over their wives, girlfriends, children, bad habits, and other mundane troubles, and facing the news that the city plans to tear down all the buildings on their block.
Jim Becker (Lawrence James), the elderly boss and owner, is fair, firm, and dignified. He insists that the drivers answer the phone with "Car service!" to remind themselves that they are providing their neighborhood a service. Turnbo (Terrence Charles Rodgers), an aging busybody, spreads neighborhood gossip on everyone, including his co-workers. Darnell "Youngblood" Williams (Franck Juste) struggles to provide for his woman Rena (Iman Richardson) and their baby Jesse, but Turnbo swears he's seen Youngblood stepping around with Rena's sister Peaches. Fielding (Kwaku Driskell) sneaks nips from a hidden bottle of booze, which endangers his job. Doub (Lawrence Winslow) tries to keep peace among his fellow drivers. Visitors include a frequent passenger named Philmore (Ivan Moore), and Shealy (Barry L. Johnson), a numbers runner who uses the office phone.
When Turnbo tells Rena his suspicions about Darnell and her sister, the furious Youngblood attacks Turnbo for "getting into my business," and Turnbo retaliates with his own violence. Also, the cabbies receive news that Becker's son, Clarence "Booster" Becker (Gil Charleston), is being released from prison after serving 20 years for killing a young white woman who had betrayed him. Booster wants to reunite with his father, but Becker can only see a murderer who shattered his dreams for his son. He tells Booster, "So what you gonna do with the rest of your life now that you done ruined it?"
Lawrence James has a commanding stage presence, portraying Becker's leadership and dignity. Rodgers is funny and properly annoying as the gossip Turnbo. Driskell is entertaining and inhabits well his drunken character. On the whole, all the actors, directed by Gregory Simmons, portray well their characters' moments of reminiscence, regret, anticipation, caring, and confrontation. At times, however, the energy flags, particularly in the middle of the second act, when nothing dramatic is happening and a couple of actors stumble over their lines. Brian Ireland's set design of the cab service's office portrays a mood of somber struggle. Sara Baldocchi's costume for Iman Richardson screams 1970s; her costumes for the men are subtle and authentic, but I wonder if she could have done more to differentiate their dress.
In Jitney, one of Wilson's earliest plays, the author captures the slice-of-life aspect: the upward-mobility dreams, the romantic entanglements, the struggle to survive and thrive, the disheartening feeling that someone "ain't got out of life what he put into it." However, in making the play so true-to-life, he sacrifices some dramatic punch. For example, a well-known theatrical rule is that if a gun is shown in Act I, it must be fired by Act III. A tragedy promised by some early weapon wielding doesn't happen. The tragedy that does happen, while realistic, seems unforeshadowed. Events fail to build upon one another.
That said, Jitney is still worth catching for its insights into the struggles of the everyday lives of working-class African American men.