Playwrights Theatre takes August Wilson's 'Jitney' for gritty trip

Review


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In the rich panorama of August Wilson's 10-play Pittsburgh Cycle, "Jitney" may be the most Pittsburgh play of all.

It was the first he wrote when, age 33, he left Pittsburgh for St. Paul, where he said he could hear Hill District voices with greater clarity. It was the first to be staged, premiering in Pittsburgh in 1982. But Wilson's first play to hit Broadway, "Ma Rainey" in 1984, was set in Chicago, because, he later explained, "I was from Pittsburgh and I didn't think it was important enough."

He thought it was important enough for the eight plays to come, although by then his own views had broadened by living elsewhere. But when "Jitney" re-premiered professionally at the Pittsburgh Public Theater in 1996, expanded with the craft Wilson had developed, it hadn't lost any of the Pittsburgh grit of its youth.

The play is as wholly Pittsburgh as its characters, sharing a Hill jitney station. Like "Two Trains Running," set in a Hill diner, it's made out of what you'd hear as a fly on the wall, but without the pull of Southern origins so important in "Two Trains." Only "Radio Golf" is so native to Pittsburgh, but it lacks "Jitney's" grit and richness of story.

"Jitney"

Where: Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre, 542 Penn Ave. (one flight up from parking garage lobby).

When: Through May 30; Thurs.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 2 and 7 p.m.

Tickets: $22.50-$27.50; 412-394-3353 (groups 412-377-7803).

And what could be grittier than "Jitney's" current incarnation in the scruffy Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre, Downtown? We could almost be back at the 1982 premiere, when Wilson arrived with his mother in a jitney.

Or what could be more Pittsburgh than this cast? Chief among them is Wilson's youthful friend, Sala Udin, who in 1982 played the station boss, Becker, and who plays him now, with his own life experience (and thinner hair) adding resonance to both role and play.

"Jitney" is in what Wilson considered an African style, focusing on the group, not the individual. It meanders among several stories or no apparent stories at all, doubles back and sprouts tangents. Gradually by the end of Act 1, a central story emerges, that of Becker and his son, Booster, just released from 20 years in prison for a murder of honor.

But Act 2 starts off in a different direction, gradually focusing on the tribulations of a young couple, Youngblood and Rena. When the simmering battle between Becker and Booster surfaces, it breaks off, unresolved, while the play hurtles toward a resolution out of anyone's control.

Other conflicts pit Becker against the alcoholic Fielding, everybody against the station busybody, Turnbo, and the future of the jitney station against the city, which is going to tear it down. But this is 1977, when redevelopment plans have been unfulfilled for decades, all part of the background conflict between the black Hill and the indifferent white city.

Even if there were no dramatic conflict, the rich talk and comic squabble would be fascination enough. "Jitney" is perhaps Wilson's most likable play, as close as he gets to comedy. But tragedy creeps up on you.

Director Mark Clayton Southers well captures the rhythms of gossip, bicker, wisecrack and whine, plus outright explosion. This has to do equally with casting and set, a director's chief responsibilities.

Not that Mr. Southers is above gimmickry. That's what I call the car at the side, a juicy realistic touch which gives undue prominence to Turnbo, whose car it is, featuring his every exit and entrance even while action continues. I'm much more positive about the addition of Youngblood's and Rena's baby and of Rena's sister, Peaches, both talked about a lot and here given unspeaking appearances.

More important, Southers and his actors prove themselves adept interpreters of this world, filling the production with many comic and telling details of behavior.

Mr. Udin anchors the cast, gradually growing from a distracted, peripheral figure into a grieving old warrior in his great showdown with Booster. (It is capriciously blocked, with too much space between them at key moments and obscured sightlines at others.) In this great scene, each is baffled by the other, each right but also each wrong.

I was struck afresh by Becker's paternal instincts, so bottled up in relation to his own son, but finding an outlet advising Youngblood and forgiving Fielding. Jonathan Berry is a cool Booster, a protective stance obviously learned in prison, but we feel his pain, and we see it, too, at the end.

Wali Jamal offers a nearly perfect portrait of the self-contained Doub, a gem of realism, unobtrusive but indispensable. Lonzo Green is equally modest as Fielding, while Kevin Brown provides florid contrast as Shealy, the numbers runner who's always "on."

Genna Styles' wary, loving Rena and Joshua Elijah Reese's ambitious, bumbling Youngblood find light tones in their relationship I haven't seen before, making their climactic confrontation sweeter than usual.

As the buttinsky Turnbo, Les Howard relishes all his opportunities for humor. This works better when he doesn't push too hard or stumble on his lines, letting his natural talent shine. I love his fussy attention to detail,

Almost accidentally, "Jitney" surveys at least three generations. What brings it so close to Wilson's own Pittsburgh life, I think, is the generational wisdom he acquired in his difficult youth and then polished by observing others in his Hill District laboratory.

"Every day cost you something," says Becker. You might also say every day brings you something, but which sentiment is truer in this hard world?


Post-Gazette senior theater critic Christopher Rawson: crawson@post-gazette.com .


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