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When August Wilson penned the play Jitney, about a small African-American business in Pittsburgh, the work marked a pair of beginnings for the playwright. First, Wilson himself noted that it was the play in which he discovered his “dramatist’s voice.” Second, Jitney became the first of a 10-play cycle informally dubbed “The Pittsburgh Cycle,” all but one of which takes place in Wilson’s hometown, a slum section of Pittsburgh known as The Hill District. Wilson managed to complete the 10-play cycle shortly before his death in 2005.
This information about Jitney, by dramaturg Karen C. Blansfield, is provided to us in the program for Deep Dish Theater Company’s current production. Directed by Hidden Voices director and PlayMakers Repertory Company member Kathryn Hunter-Williams, Jitney tells the story of nine people knit together by a hardscrabble existence that, even as the curtain rises, threatens to close around them. Each of these characters, for his own reasons, walks a precipice; and outside sources are threatening to bring that precipice tumbling down.
The term “jitney” originated as a term for a nickel, a five-cent piece. It was later carried over to apply to a low-fare car service that carried passengers and/or cargo for a small price — at the time of its creation, about a nickel. Jitney takes place in the office of Becker’s Car Service, where a loose-knit quintet of drivers attempts to scratch out a living driving their own cars for cheap fares, usually running between $3 and $5. Jim Becker (Lester Hill) has run the business out of this same office for over 18 years, and most of his drivers have been with him for at least five. While it is not a gold mine, it is a living, especially in an area of town where many of the adjacent buildings are boarded up and empty.
But all does not run smooth at Becker’s Car Service. Youngblood (Prince T. Bowie), one of Becker’s younger drivers, has been working hard but being secretive; this suspicious behavior has raised the hackles of the office meddler, Turnbo (C. Delton Streeter), who is convinced that all this secrecy hides an affair between Youngblood and the sister of his common-law wife, Rena (Connie McCoy). Fielding (Gil Faison), the newest member of the crew at five years’ tenure, has turned to drink; he has gone so far as to bring it to the office with him, which gets him fired at one point. But Becker, who understands the economic certainty of the move, rescinds the firing and puts Fielding on a tight leash, instead.
Doub (John Rogers Harris), who has been with Becker the longest at 13 years, is an easygoing man who most often ends up playing peacemaker between Turnbo and the other members of the company. The opinionated Turnbo has a hair-trigger temper, and even his own friends cross him at their peril. The cast includes Shealy (Thomasi McDonald), a man who takes advantage of Becker’s friendship by using the company phone to run his numbers racket, and Philmore (Michael S. Goolsby), a big, gentle powerhouse of a man who proudly works at a local hotel and often uses the Car Service.
But Becker has two deadlines approaching that, for different reasons, threaten him. Becker’s only son, born Clarence but known to all as Booster (Mike Wiley), has been in jail for 20 years for murder; he is being released today. But the overhanging threat to all of the drivers is the one-month notice, now already two weeks past, from the city that this building will be evacuated and boarded up, to join its neighbors in the slow demoralizing crawl towards urban renewal.
The nine-member Deep Dish cast, led by Hill, forms an ensemble that works impeccably well together. In two superior, well-turned scenes, Becker confronts his son about the act that he feels killed Booster’s mother; and he decides to fight city hall by gathering the building’s tenants to hire a lawyer. But this upturn of events is quickly eclipsed by a tragic accident that leaves the jitneys in peril and threatens to destroy all that Jim Becker has fought to build.
Director Kathryn Hunter-Williams melds this ensemble in a crucible that threatens to reach its flash-point in a staggering climax. This production is the revival of a landmark play that well deserves a return to the stage, and creates a work that is well-deserving of your attention. These actors fill the skins of their characters and recreate a time and circumstance that, propelled by these players, draws us relentlessly in. Jitney is a surprisingly powerful play that confirms the staying power of one of America’s leading playwrights.
Jitney continues at Deep Dish through May 23rd. See our theatre calendar for details.