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BWW Review: Seattle Rep's JITNEY Brings in the Power of Age and Experience

BWW Review: Seattle Rep's JITNEY Brings in the Power of Age and Experience
Anthony Chisholm, Francois Battiste,
Harvy Blanks, and Ray Anthony Thomas
in Jitney at the Seattle Rep.
Photo credit: Joan Marcus

I've often talked about the embarrassment of theatrical riches that we have in Seattle. We have several companies that bring us new works, many of which have made their way on to Broadway. We have a wealth of extremely talented performers who constantly wow us with their gifts. And we have a reputation that brings in talented others to play in our sandbox. But we also have a local connection to one of America's most acclaimed playwrights, August Wilson, and so we get things like the Tony nominated Broadway production of Wilson's "Jitney" remounting at the Seattle Rep with the Broadway director, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, and several of the Broadway cast.

Wilson didn't grow up here, he grew up in the areas of Pittsburgh, the setting of his 10 play Century Cycle. But he moved here in 1990 and developed a long relationship with the Seattle Rep up to his passing in 2005. And the Rep, thankfully, continues to bring us his works that spotlight the lives of African Americans in Pittsburgh over the last century, giving us his unflinching look into their dreams and heartaches. In "Jitney", the first written of his cycle, he focuses on an unlicensed car service, or "jitney", company in 1977. Cabs often wouldn't take fares in these under-privileged neighborhoods and so these jitneys were some people's only resources. And this particular one, operated by respected neighborhood leader Becker (Steven Anthony Jones), has a thriving business. But now, developers have informed the local businesses, including Becker's Car Service, that they will be boarded up and torn down to make way for new houses. But Becker and his drivers are determined to make a stand, even in the midst of their own turmoil.

And it's that turmoil that takes Wilson's plays so far beyond their basic storylines. He dives so much into these complex characters that the main premise almost becomes secondary. Plus, his dialog is so rich, natural, and engaging. It's no wonder many refer to Wilson as the American Shakespeare.

And now we have this fantastic production from Broadway, helmed by Santiago-Hudson who keeps a pace where we're never forced upon by the story or characters but simply washed over us like a vibrant Jazz tune. Plus, with the set from David Gallo and costumes from Toni-Leslie James, we're transported to the gritty 70's and immersed into the world.

The ensemble cast is beyond superb. This collection of experienced, mature actors gives us a master class on character development and investment. Jones maintains a commanding presence of strength and integrity in this world as does his long time driver Doub, played with incredible stage presence by Keith Randolph Smith. Ray Anthony Thomas brings in the meddling gossip Turnbo with a commitment that makes him both sympathetic and annoying as hell. I must mention Anthony Chisholm who brings in the best and most endearing drunk I think I've ever seen. Even the smallest roles, that of Philmore played by Brian D. Coats and Shealy from Harvy Blanks are never just thrown away characters but engaging and essential.

But don't think it's just the old guard that gives us the power. Amari Cheatom and Nija Okoro as Youngblood and his wife Rena bring in a scintillating storyline with some fantastic performances. And the emotion and quiet angst from Francois Battiste as Becker's son Booster brought the house down with a heart wrenching gasp from the audience.

This is, to put it mildly, an extremely solid and riveting production that shows storytelling at it's best. And so, with my three-letter rating system, I give "Jitney" at the Seattle Rep a stunned YAY+. Some want to catch all of Shakespeare's plays, but I want to catch all of Wilson's Century Cycle. And with "Jitney" I'm over halfway there.

"Jitney" performs at the Seattle Rep through March 29th. For tickets or information contact the Seattle Rep box office at 206-443-2222 or visit them online at www.seattlerep.org.


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