A Vast Landscape

August Wilson's words and thoughts enhance Jitney's powerful tapestry.

August Wilson'sJitney is a capacious, large-minded, wordy, generous, emotional grab bag of a play that continues working on you for some time after you've seen it. In fact, more than one viewing would be required to plumb all of the work's riches.

The action takes place in a storefront in Pittsburgh's Hill District in 1977, where a group of men operate a gypsy-cab stand. The place is shabby, with a worn sofa and chairs, a rickety table stacked with dog-eared magazines and a phone that rings so constantly and imperiously -- at well-timed or inopportune moments, sometimes snatched up and sometimes ignored -- that it almost becomes a character in the play.

The primary plot concerns the cab stand's owner, Becker, a proud and meticulous man whose son, Booster, is about to be released after twenty years in prison. Booster shot and killed a white woman who had falsely accused him of rape; his mother died soon after the trial. Becker has never forgiven Booster, nor visited him in the penitentiary. There's a secondary plot that details the attempts of Darnell Williams -- "Youngblood" -- to build a reasonable life for himself and the woman and child he loves in an inhospitable, poverty-riddled and sometimes violent world. These are all deep and multi-layered characters, but the play's fascination doesn't lie in the contrapuntal arcs of the two stories, which are insufficiently dynamic. Father and son remain locked in their grim, sad struggle throughout; the two young people stay together, as we suspected all along that they would. In some ways, this play is neater than Wilson's other works: There's a climax -- tragic -- and a sad, hopeful denouement in which things get resolved, individuals shuck their bad habits, enemies are reconciled and Booster comes to terms with his feelings about his father.

C.J. Lindsey and Erika LaVonn in Jitney.
Terry Shapiro
C.J. Lindsey and Erika LaVonn in Jitney.

Wilson, possibly the best playwright working today, wrote Jitney at the age of 33. He returned to the script later in life, having honed his craft and won two Pulitzers, and when Jitneywas produced off-Broadway in the late '90s, it won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award. To my mind, there are still flaws -- long, preachy passages, too many speeches about disillusionment and lost dreams, too much talk between the young lovers about how she's not really understanding him and he's not really seeing her. There's something stuck in the relationship between Becker and Booster, something unfinished and apparently unfinishable, so that the playwright had to resort to a level of contrivance to give Jitney its resolution.

None of this matters. Wilson's plays have been compared to tapestries or jazz works, and certainly Jitney communicates in some of the ways that music does. There are bravura moments, comic riffs, haunting undertones. The language surges and ebbs, moves forward, corrects itself, circles and encircles. The power of the play lies in the characters and interactions of all the men who frequent the cab stand, their weaknesses and vices, their tired dignity, their endless bickering and analyzing, their moments of insight and generosity. There's also the constant tension between their contained universe and the outside world, and much discussion about the dangers of putting "your business in the street" -- a concept encapsulated in the image of the demented woman described early in the play by one of the men who, in a paroxysm of rage and despair, exposed herself in the street. In any event, the neighborhood surrounding the jitney storefront is being gentrified, and the business will be closed in two weeks.

Director Israel Hicks gives Jitney a pitch-perfect, lovingly detailed production, and the actors bring a world of skill and feeling to the play. Becker is given paternal gravitas and a rare, generous smile that seems to forgive the sins of the world by the excellent Charles Weldon. Harvey Blanks is brilliant as Turnbo, a strange, affable, dangerous man who in some ways -- the volatile mix of good and evil he embodies, his endless flirtation with the boundaries between inside and outside -- represents the soul of the play. This actor can be gape-mouthed and foolish or full of moral certitude, and he gets some of Wilson's most inspired comic riffs -- for example, when he holds forth on the connections between murder and a man's sexuality.

John Wesley is fine as wise, seasoned and kindly Doub, moving about the place, unobtrusively straightening out both the furniture and his friends' misconceptions. Jacinto Taras Riddick is a tightly controlled Booster until anguish forces him into revelation. C.J. Lindsey is effective and energetic as Youngblood, and Erika LaVonn makes an appealing Rena.

Jitneyshows that theater can provide much more than amusement or an evening's pleasure. It can change the tenor of your thinking and contribute indelible images and concepts to the culture at large. By focusing tightly on a specific time and place and a particular group of men, the play manages to illuminate the human condition.

 
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