BWW Reviews: JITNEY is a Long, Meandering Ride at Portland Playhouse
Playwrights develop in interesting ways. Some start out brilliant and end up fading or repeating themselves, like Tennessee Williams. Some grow as they get older, like John Patrick Shanley. And some just repeat the same stuff over and over. August Wilson's plays are known for their anecdotal structure and use of language, and their vision of the African-American experience in each decade of the 20th century. Jitney was his first play, written and set in the late 1970s, and it doesn't reach the poetic heights of Wilson's later plays. That doesn't make it unmemorable, just not the remarkable experience Wilson's other plays can bring.
Jitney takes place in the office of a gypsy cab company. Becker is the boss, managing the others and awaiting the return of his son, who has spent the last twenty years in prison for murder. Youngblood is a hothead, but he's working and saving to buy his girlfriend a house for them to live in with their son. Shealy uses the phone to run numbers. Fielding is an alcoholic who shouldn't be driving. And Turnbo is the know-it-all who tells the others how they should be living their lives.
The play is anecdotal, each character telling long stories about where they've been and what they've lived through, but the stories are less distinctive than I'm used to from August Wilson. Even the core confict, between Becker and his son, Booster, seems generic; the son and the father disappointed in each other and unable to communicate. The characters don't seem to know each other as well as they should after all these years, and they have to keep explaining basic facts to each other. Again, the marks of a new playwright, though Wilson spent years revising and working on the play toward the end of his life.
The performances, however, couldn't be better. Kevin Kenerly as Becker is a mountain of strength, and Rodney Hicks (so good in the unfortunate Mountaintop a few months ago) is passionate and intense as Youngblood, but the entire cast is solid, finding the humor and the pain in these men's lives. Occasionally they struggle with Wilson's working-class dialect, but that's a small fault.
G. Valmont Thomas has directed the play beautifully. He gives each actor room to tell his story, yet keeps the pace brisk. The script is divided into old-fashioned scenes with several breaks in each act, but Thomas doesn't let that slow the performers down. Alan E. Schwanke's set is evocative of the period and the circumstances; it reminds me of the garages my parents took their cars to back in those years. Music is well used throughout the play also, especially at the curtain call.
I appreciate the effort everyone at Portland Playhouse put into Jitney. I can't wait to see what they do with a better August Wilson play.