August Wilson’s “Jitney,” chronologically the seventh in a 10-play cycle illustrating the African-American experience in 20th century America, is actually his first play and was conceived in 1979. Rich with feisty and rhythmic language, the drama is shaped with clarity, the production spiced with rolling humor and emotional candor.
Set in Pittsburgh in the late ’70s, the action takes place in an abandoned storefront that serves as a “jitney” station, the equivalent of a gypsy cab. The taxi drivers chip in monthly dues and use their own cars to make local runs for the black community. Their building is about to be razed for what seems to be dubious urban development, forcing them to close the business or find new quarters.
Wilson has provided each character with a clear individual voice and a common cause, which leads the narrative to a powerful final curtain. The characters include Becker (Paul Butler), the paternal manager for the drivers, and Youngblood (Curtis McClarin), a Vietnam veteran struggling to secure a 30-year mortgage. Fielding (Anthony Chisholm), Billy Eckstine’s former tailor, is now an alcoholic, boozing in self-pity over a wife who left him 20 years earlier, and Turnbo, powerfully played by Stephen McKinley Henderson, is a lopsided philosopher, gossip and all-around troublemaker.
It is Turnbo who summons the play’s earthy humor and erupts in violent confrontation with Youngblood. Finally, there is Booster (Jerome Preston Bates), the prodigal son who returns to give the story its focus and tragic strength. It is a compelling tale, led with unswerving staging by Walter Dallas.
Scott Bradley has designed the station with seedy realism, and Constanza Romero’s slept-in costumes are an asset. A fall engagement at the Manhattan Theatre Club is expected.