BWW Feature: Mash note to JITNEY at African American Repertory Theatre
I am ever grateful to African American Repertory Theatre for getting me through a good chunk of August Wilson's Pittsburgh Cycle plays. Each of the ten plays relates to a decade of the twentieth century, and more specifically to black life in Pittsburgh during that time.
But more than that, the company created a theatrical experience that I will remember forever. Under the direction of Derome Scott Smith, the company's founder, and produced by Sycamore Rouge's kb saine, they presented Wilson's award-winning 1982 play in the modest auditorium at Pine Camp.
The story concerns the men who work at an unlicensed cab station in Pittsburgh's Hill neighborhood. Urban renewal threatens to raze the buildings on the block, putting the office in jeopardy. And along with this plot there is a web of relationships among the drivers and their friends and lovers that bring the era to life.
That 2011 AART-Sycamore Rouge co-production won the Ernie McClintock Best Ensemble Award from the Richmond Theatre Critics Circle. And in my memory, the accolade was well deserved. The show was incredibly moving. The actors were spectacular. Smith cast some local favorites--J. Ron Fleming, Toney Q. Cobb--as well as a number of actors we've rarely seen before or since--Ray Taalib-Dean, Kamau Akinwole, Sasha Wakefield, Gordon Craig, Justin Delaney, and Delvin Young. My overriding feeling was, "If they can get these actors out for this show, why can't we see them in more shows?"
Julinda Lewis's review calls the show "a compelling piece of American theater," and I certainly agree. So much so that when I saw that San Diego's Old Globe Theatre was opening "Jitney" in January 2020, when I was in town, I got tickets and pressed my sister-in-law, a retired New York actress who had never seen the play, to go, too. I was beyond excited--the show was a tour featuring most of the cast of the 2017 Broadway production, as well as its much-lauded set.
My sister-in-law got there first, but we didn't have a chance to discuss it till after we'd both seen it. And we were both disappointed. I'd touted the play as a hugely affecting emotional ride, but she agreed with me that it just fell flat. You can talk about directorial choices all you want, but I believe that the simple production at Pine Camp had a thousand times more feeling than the meticulously cultivated touring show. There's a--let's call it a surprise development--near the end that I was anticipating, remembering how emotionally killing it was for me in the AART production, but at The Old Globe it came and went unremarkably.
It's a lesson for me about big productions, big names and big budgets. They mean nothing against true, visceral renderings of a playwright's creation.