As the initial work in the late August Wilson’s “10 Play Cycle,” chronicling the African-American experience in each decade of the 20th century, “Jitney” has gone through the most revisions since it premiered in 1982. Wilson’s thematically awkward final scene is still out of sync with the rest of the play, but that’s barely noticeable amid the sublime craftsmanship of helmer Claude Purdy and an extraordinary nine-person ensemble. Purdy expertly orchestrates the ebb and flow of memorably distinct personalities who play off each other like well-seasoned jazz musicians, knowing exactly when to take and when to give.
As in the other works in the cycle, this legiter is imbedded in the Hill District of Pittsburgh. Set in 1977, the action follows the complicated social interactions of a group of drivers, operating out of a storefront gypsy cab service operated by retired machine worker Becker (James Avery). Much of the colorful interplay springs from the drivers’ varying levels of compliance with Becker’s four rules: “no overcharging; keep your car clean; no drinking; and be courteous.”
Compared with the other works in Wilson’s cycle, “Jitney” is light on plot evolution. The main sources of conflict emanate from the hovering threat that Becker’s makeshift taxi company may be shut down by the city, and from the ragingly irreconcilable confrontations between Becker and his 39-year-old son, Booster (Richard Brooks), who has just been released from prison after serving 20 years for murder. Avery and Brooks give tangibly searing portraits of a formerly loving father and son who can only batter each other for their mutual disappointments.
“Jitney” could be described as a lot of men sitting around talking, but the richness of this work comes from their sublime interplay. They have their own peculiar takes on life and are not at all reticent about imposing their views on each other.
In a linguistically virtuoso perf, John Toles-Bey’s ever-opportunistic Turnbo, the company gossip, is relentlessly on the case of emotionally volatile young Vietnam vet Youngblood (Russell Andrews) for supposedly cheating on his girlfriend, Rena (Lizette Diaz Carion). Yet Turnbo is quick to hit on Rena himself when he perceives her vulnerability.
Mel Winkler offers a haunting portrayal of the company alcoholic, Fielding, whose recollections of the wife who left him 22 years earlier are as endearing as they are pathetic. In a sadly revealing confession of a life turned tragic, Fielding demonstrates his tailoring skills on Boomer while he recalls the days when singer Billy Eckstein and bandleader Count Basie competed for his talents as a suit maker.
Also rewarding are the zesty exchanges between driver Doub (Alex Morris), local numbers runner Shealy (Bill Lee Brown) and wife-challenged hotel clerk Philmore (Darryl Alan Reed) on subjects ranging from who was the more beautiful singer, Lena Horne or Sarah Vaughn, to barbed observations on life happening on the streets right outside their storefront window.
Joel Daavid’s production design (sets, lighting) creates a perfect environment for communicating Wilson’s naturalistic rhythms and Purdy’s directorial vision, highlighting not only the inside of the dispatching station but also the street outside. The placement of the driver seating areas on stage left and the relentlessly active wall phone stage right creates a dramatically rich pathway for these characters to exercise their multitude of attitudes and reactions.