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BWW Review: August Wilson's JITNEY Astounds at American Stage

It's a local theatrical tradition, thanks to American Stage. One of the ten Pittsburgh Century Cycle plays about black life by August Wilson have been performed each year, every year. This year, it's JITNEY, their ninth in the series, and in 2017 it will be Joe Turner's Come and Gone, and then that's it. Hopefully they will continue to do the cycle for another 10 years after that, maybe even in order of decade (Gem of the Ocean to Radio Golf), because these plays seem so necessary, so vital to our area. Until then, we have JITNEY. Like birthdays and Christmases, it's worth the excited wait. Sure, some birthdays and Christmases are better than others, but each one is special and carries its own joyful memories.

JITNEY is the first of the cycle plays that Wilson wrote and, taking place in 1977, the only one scribed in the decade in which it is set. Although it may not carry the overall greatness of Wilson's finest work (which also happen to be some of the finest plays of the past half century--Fences, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, Joe Turner's Come and Gone, and The Piano Lesson), it is still one of the finest plays you will ever see. It's on par with last year's Radio Golf in excellence, but one moment of the show transcends even that. It's the scene that ends Act 1, and in sheer power, it may be one of the high water marks of the theatre season and also of Wilson's career.

The play is a slice of life set in a Pittsburgh gypsy cab station, where unlicensed cabbies drive into areas where "mainstream" cabs usually refuse to venture. The show centers on Wilson's favorite topic--mainly the relationship of fathers and sons, leading to some form of redemption. Becker, in his 60's, runs the jitney station, and his not-so-prodigal son, Booster, who was in prison for 20 years for the murder of a white girl, comes back. The two of them square off, and eventually Booster is disowned. The scene in Act 2 when Becker treats his own flesh and blood as just another jitney customer is sad beyond words. And the ending, where it all comes full circle and makes total sense, is a thing of simple beauty. And it is all captured in two words that one character says over the phone. Who says the words, and why it matters that this particular character says them, is best left for the first-time viewer. But it is extremely moving and as powerful as theatre gets this year.

As Becker, Mujahid Abdul-Rashid is a towering presence, extraordinarily strong with a rich voice that I could listen to forever. As his son, Adrian Roberts brings out the stoicism of a man who has wronged others but wants to make amends. The two connect and battle beautifully, and their Act 1 closing scene is as resonant, as deep, and as moving a sequence as you will likely find.

"I got a wife," Becker tells his son. "I got respect. I can walk anywhere and hold my head up high. What I ain't got is a son that did me honor...The Bible say, 'Honor thy father and thy mother.' I ain't got that. I ain't got a son I can be proud of. That's what I ain't got. A son to come up behind a good honest decent life. I got a son who people point to and say, 'That's Becker's boy! That's the one that killed that gal. That's Becker's boy...'"

The two go back and forth, and it is emotionally draining. At the end of Act 1, the woman sitting next to me looked dazed, shell shocked, like she had been in a battle herself. Personally, I had tears in my eyes, chills up and down my arms. One person asked me if I was a father, and if that happened to be the reason that it was so emotional for me. "No," I answered, "but I am a son." And Wilson's words, and Abdul-Rashid's and Roberts' brilliant line-readings of those words, resonate no matter who we are.

Equal in excellence to Abdul-Rashid and Roberts is Satchel Andre as the Vietnam vet, Youngblood. We root for this young man, who is wanting to move up in the world with his wife and child, and Andre is so alive in the role, so real; it's an electric performance.

"ranney," so good in last year's Radio Golf, is equally fine here in a much different role. As Doub, he also has a knack of being in the moment, and no one listens as well as he does onstage. Even when he's not the center of attention, he is a mesmerizing presence, and in some ways becomes the anchor in the show.

Kim Sullivan, who was also phenomenal in Radio Golf, plays a very similar character here, sort of the entertaining villain of the piece. He may recycle his performance, and we may have the seen-it-before response to him, but he's so winning, and the gun-wielding weasel of a character is so hilariously awful, that it really doesn't matter. I don't care if it's too similar to his turn as the Radio Golf baddie; I'll watch him anywhere.

The immensely talented Ron Bobb-Semple does the near-impossible as Fielding: He appropriately seems really intoxicated onstage without overdoing it. Aaron Washington plays Shealy, who with his colorful attire and platform shoes seems like he stepped straight out of a 1970's situation comedy like "Good Times." And Josh Goff lends able support in the small role of Philmore.

Jazmine Pierce is stunningly beautiful onstage as Youngblood's significant other, but she doesn't reach the heights of the other cast members. In some ways this works; she seems more down to earth, more real--an outsider. But she's also not as exciting nor as dynamic as the others, and her voice doesn't carry the same power. But some of her lines garnered loud applause from the audience, so she certainly hit home when necessary.

A show like this cannot succeed without the guiding hand of director L. Peter Callender. His obvious love for Wilson shows through every scene, every moment of humor (and there are many), every heartbreaking monologue. The show is beautifully staged, the pacing is spot on, and the acting is as strong as it gets.

Scott Cooper's set, atop a foundation of cracked concrete, is a sight to behold. Pittsburgh Steelers calendars and memorabilia clutter the rundown jitney office; Playboy magazines are scattered on a table. Joseph P. Oshry's lighting works well and never calls attention to itself. The sound succeeds (the telephone rings constantly and the timing becomes whip-fast). I liked the music selections, especially the opening of "What's Goin' On," Marvin Gaye's haunting early-Seventies plea to a changing world, that starts the play. I also enjoyed when some of the characters hum or sing lines from songs of the day, like the Delfonics "Didn't I (Blow Your Mind This Time)."

Frank Chavez's costumes are quite appropriate, especially Shealy's outlandish garb; sometimes it feels like we have walked into a mid-1970's movie, like Car Wash or Blue Collar.

The entire show--acting, directing, tech--is first rate, what we've come to expect from American Stage and their take on Wilson's Pittsburgh Century Cycle.

It's been over three days since I experienced the show, and I still can't shake it. JITNEY deservedly garnered an immediate standing ovation the night I saw it. The audience and the cast were in this together, a celebration of August Wilson, a celebration of what it means to be human. This is what we want every time we venture to the theatre. It doesn't always happen, but when it does, we need to pause and take notice and give thanks. So I am giving thanks to the amazing cast, director and crew of JITNEY for continuing to elevate the great playwright, for doing his shows right, and for filling and thrilling our hearts as they lift Mr. Wilson up where he belongs.

JITNEY runs through February 21st. For tickets, please call (727) 823-PLAY (7529).

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