BWW Review: Arena Stage's JITNEY- A Joyous Celebration of August Wilson's Genius
From the moment you enter the Kreeger Theatre for Arena Stage's production of August Wilson's Jitney, you are immersed in Pittsburgh's now-famous Hill District. David Gallo's brilliantly executed, run-down storefront, home to the gypsy taxi service of the title, is a feast for jaded eyes. Gallo hasn't missed a trick-the missing linoleum tiles, the grime, the gap-tooth look of missing tin tiles on the walls and ceiling, the duct tape on the third-hand couch, right down to the all-important rotary payphone, where the drivers take calls for their rides (kids, best ask your grandma and grandpa what's up with those).
That's an eye-full enough-but then you're treated to an elaborate pantomime, with Darron West and Charles Coe's period music filling the space as a handful of the Jitney crew appear, first visible through the dirty glass of the storefront; and then, one by one, they enter through the door and make themselves comfortable.
Emphasis on comfortable-this cast, as directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson (a master of Wilson's work if there ever was one), so fully inhabits their characters that there isn't a breath wasted onstage. Every gesture, every look, every furtive reach into the breast pocket for that pint bottle, is fully realized and an absolute joy to behold. When you have a show directed by a master of Wilson's world like Santiago-Hudson, you know that the journey ahead will be sharp, steady and powerful.
With this production of Jitney you're not just watching a play; you are immersing yourself in Wilson's world. And what a rich world it is, with folks dropping in and out, gossiping, swiping at each other, arguing, plotting, dreaming. Not to mention showing off - costume designer Toni-Leslie James makes sure the cast is decked out in the finest threads of the day (check out Harvy Blanks, as Shealy the numbers-runner, who makes a grand entrance in every scene with the latest in 70's urban fashion.) You come to know and love every one of them; that love, however, tempered by the realization that Death hovers over these men and women, biding its time and waiting to swoop down and snatch his prey.
Leading the crew is Stephen Anthony Jones as Becker, the manager who tries to maintain discipline among the conflicting egos and various states of sobriety of his staff-all while fending off a threat of eviction from the Pittsburgh authorities. Jones, like the other men in this world, asserts his authority even as it's clear that there is a vulnerability barely hidden beneath the surface of his gruff exterior.
And it's hard to decide which is the hardest employee to handle - there's Anthony Chisholm's utterly charming turn as Fielding, whose love for the aforesaid bottle masks a past life as a haberdasher for the biggest stars in black entertainment. Then you've got the insufferable gossip Turnbo, played with a comical, righteous passion by Ray Anthony Thomas; his constant whine about how others are having a good time is funny, but nearly destroys the relationship between Youngblood and Rena (Amari Cheatom and Nija Okoro, two brilliant romantic leads). That Turnbo finds Rena easy on the eye is communicated fleetingly, discreetly and hilariously from her first entrance.
With productions this fully realized it's unfair to linger over only a few of this brilliant cast-they all shine, especially when some of the more stilted dialogue is delivered so smoothly it takes an incredibly nit-picky critic to notice. (Jitney was the first in the ten-play cycle that Wilson wrote, and in my opinion it occasionally shows.)
At the core of the play, however, is a confrontation between Becker and his son, Booster-played with smooth bravado by Francois Battiste. Released from the penitentiary, Booster and Becker have it out in a heart-wrenching confrontation, and as would happen in Wilson's later work (Fences, for example) the conflict between father and son is meant to remain tragically unresolved.
When - not if, but when - you come to see Jitney, you'll find that the real joy of watching is the way audiences react viscerally, audibly, to the action; on opening night we hung on every line, and let our pleasure and displeasure be known. It was a testament to the love we have for Wilson and for his indelibly-drawn characters that we all expressed ourselves openly, brazenly, encouraging the characters onstage.
Lightning like that doesn't strike often, folks; best get in line for this one.
Running Time: 2 hours, 35 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.