August Wilson’s “Jitney” makes a wonderful Off Broadway coda to a Broadway theater season in which 20-year-old plays have made major new statements (see “True West” and “The Real Thing,” for instance). Wilson’s first full-length work, “Jitney” was written in 1979 and would become the first in his landmark series of dramas about the African-American experience in the 20th century. For this reason alone it demands and rewards attention, but “Jitney” also provides ample pleasures that stand apart from any such associations. Absorbing, funny and beautifully acted, it depicts, with Wilson’s patented brand of lifelike theatricality, a group of black gypsy cab drivers in Pittsburgh struggling to find honor, satisfaction and accomplishment in a landscape of diminishing possibility.
The play takes place in the battered-looking office-cum-lounging room of the gypsy cab company. A frayed brocade couch in lurid yellow and green is the primary furnishing, and the walls are darkened by years of neglected grime. Set designer David Gallo renders the room’s deteriorating condition with patches of gritty details, but he also suggests the layers of life and history that lie behind it in a more stylized manner. The former flash of its decaying neighborhood glows dimly in the background: The room’s back wall is a scrim through which can be seen a looming cubist streetscape lit by Donald Holder with splashes of vivid color.
This place has clearly seen better days, and so have many of its inhabitants. These include the occasional stray from the neighborhood — the numbers runner Shealy (Willis Burks II) and the hotel doorman Philmore (Leo V. Finnie III) — as well as the four cabbies who work at the station under the stern but benevolent eye of the proprietor Becker (Paul Butler), who is both boss and reigning moral authority. He’s often called on to settle disputes between the fractious drivers, who have plenty of time for bickering between $3 or $4 jobs.
The year is 1977, as Susan Hilferty’s excellent costume designs and Rob Milburn’s musical soundscape duly establish, but history and the legacy of racism don’t impinge as heavily in “Jitney” as they do in most other plays in the cycle. Nevertheless, the visible signs of neglect are symbols of the larger culture’s attitude toward the urban black populace in the post-Civil Rights era. These men’s lives and livelihoods are an eyesore in danger of being erased by the sweep of progress: It’s revealed midway through the first act that the station, like the rest of the block, is about to be forcibly closed because the building is marked for demolition by the city.
The dilemma of the impending closure is just one of several causes of knotty conflict in the play. There is also the bad blood between the nosy driver Turnbo (Stephen McKinley Henderson) and the hotheaded Youngblood (Russell Hornsby), which is fanned when Turnbo hints to Youngblood’s girlfriend Rena (Michole Briana White) that her man is cheating on her with her own sister. Also causing perpetual trouble is Fielding (Anthony Chisholm), who can’t keep away from the bottle despite Becker’s threats to kick him out if he’s caught nipping again.
But lying heaviest on Becker’s heart is the imminent arrival of his son, Booster (Carl Lumbly), after a 20-year prison term. The chatty Turnbo, played with entertaining impishness by Henderson, tells the sad history of Booster to Youngblood in one of the play’s major monologues. A science prodigy who fell in love with a white girl in college, Booster shot his girlfriend after she pretended not to know him when they were discovered in flagrante by her father. (This rather far-fetched series of circumstances isn’t the play’s most plausible dramatic prop.) His death sentence was commuted, but not before it killed his mother. Becker has never forgiven him throwing away a promising life, the chance at something his father never had.
It’s one of the paradoxes of Wilson’s style that his plays are sometimes at their least compelling when they’re most overtly dramatic. The brandishing of a gun, the heavy moral reckoning between Becker and his son over the past, the bitter argument between Youngblood and Rena that erupts when she discovers he’s secretly purchased a house — these inherently dramatic confrontations are the only occasions when the play falters or seems contrived. Wilson has an uncanny ability to replicate the easy ebb and flow of life itself onstage, a talent that can make more traditionally “dramatic” moments seem particularly stagy and out of sync.
It’s when his characters are merely idling and chatting that they rivet our attention. When these cabbies talk, they may appear to be just passing the time, but what they subtly and captivatingly reveal to the audience through their casual banter is the essence of a life, the dream that reveals a blighted but hopeful soul, the memory of an indignity that has scarred a career. Wilson’s language is colloquial writing of a highly accomplished kind: It is so vivid and truthful, so packed with detail and texture that it takes on the richness of poetry.
It is served here by a cast without a single weak link. Butler’s Becker moves with a sad, trudging heaviness that telegraphs the sagging load of disappointment that his naturally hopeful heart is forever fighting against, and Butler’s magnificently resonant baritone seems to carry its own moral weight. Chisholm, as the alcoholic Fielding, has an almost balletic comic gracefulness in his movements. His performance has an unforgettable, piteous tang, particularly when he tearfully confesses his affection for a wife he hasn’t seen in 22 years.
Hornsby and White are fiery and affecting as the two young lovers struggling to find a viable life together. Lumbly, in the difficult role of Booster, cuts a noble figure as a man who has weathered disgrace with steel-willed dignity. But really the entire cast is worthy of individual tribute, and the seamlessness of the ensemble work here can be credited to director Marion McClinton, who helmed a similarly fine, largely African-American cast at the Second Stage earlier this season in “Jar the Floor.”
Although it doesn’t reach the artistic heights of the best plays of the cycle — even as revised, it has a rough-hewn, occasionally even crude quality — “Jitney” is suffused with the sympathetic wisdom that’s a hallmark of all Wilson’s work. Its characters grab and hold our attention through the force of their homely eloquence and the pungently particular experience it is used to evoke. Where others might see only small lives of dissipation and disappointment, Wilson finds nobility and beauty, and he makes the audience see them too.