“Jitney” is surely the most Chekhovian of August Wilson’s 10 Pittsburgh plays celebrating a century of African-American life. The first one he composed, it remains arguably his most popular; its irresistibly entertaining symphony of longing, complaint and regret permeates the gypsy-cab station setting like the ’70s soul music pouring out of the radio. Ron OJ Parson’s crisp revival for South Coast Rep, now imported to the Pasadena Playhouse, reflects distinction on both institutions.
It’s 1977, and America’s state and local governments are taking their first inept stabs at correcting so-called urban blight. The walls of Becker’s Car Service are destined to fall as surely as the trees in the Ranevskys’ cherry orchard, but before they go, the Hill District still depends on the services traditional (read “white”) cabs won’t provide.
So under the watchful eye of proprietor Becker (the wonderful Charlie Robinson, forbidding as an Old Testament patriarch), the employees engage in a roundelay of arguments and coffee runs; numbers bought and taken; rides accepted or declined at whim. Parson’s staging is at its best here, with multiple actions overlapping yet complementing each other at any given time.
Most of the chitchat has to do with the garrulous, gossipy Turnbo (sly, subtle Ellis E. Williams) “getting into other people’s business,” especially that of hotheaded, aptly named Youngblood (Larry Bates), widely reported as two-timing the ever-faithful Rena (Kristy Johnson). The young couple is riveting, though thesps and helmer are powerless to offset the contrived, pat nature of this conflict’s resolution. (Wilson learned later on how to infuse even his subplots with troubling ambiguity.)
Parson only falters in the handling of the “A-story,” the reunion of Becker with son Booster (Montae Russell) upon his release from a 20-year prison sentence. (To no one’s surprise, it was a murder fueled by people getting into each other’s business.) There’s nothing in the blocking to suggest Booster is an unknown, alien force in this environment; Russell and Robinson simply walk about creating inexpressive stage pictures. Russell does pull off a climactic coup later on, in an outpouring of grief that merits the adjective “earth-shaking.”
For all its intimately personal action, “Jitney” is flavored with a final tinge of the political as Becker’s drivers — enemies yet friends, shabby yet unquestionably noble — recognize their salvation can only be sought in group action. The business of one, they realize, really is the business of all — a generous theme running like a river through the entire 10-play cycle, but never with more heart or soul than here.