Forget Uber and Book a Ride with Jitney
Reviewed by Dr. Tiffany Raymond, PhD
Playwright August Wilson is a perennial tour de force in the theatre world. I remember studying his plays in graduate school theatre classes at the University of Southern California long before I lived in Pittsburgh and being staunchly impressed by the poetic undertones of his flowing, working-class dialogue.
Being able to witness (I can’t even say watch) Wilson’s 1982 play, Jitney, behind Wilson’s newly renovated childhood home here in Pittsburgh in the Lower Hill is nothing short of magical. The thrill is palpable between the setting and Mark Clayton Southers’ stellar direction at the wheel of this Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company production. Jitney is performed outdoors, and the production is in symphony with summer cicadas, with occasionally expected interference from hotrodders and helicopters that compete with dialogue. The cast projects well, except for Becker (Sala Udin), so it is rarely an issue.
Wilson’s play is set in a 1977 jitney station (the Uber before Uber that was comprised of unlicensed cabs) in the Lower Hill. The play’s references to Giant Eagle, the Buhl Planetarium, the University of Pittsburgh, and other local establishments elicit the knowing smiles and pride that come with being a local. The jitney station is where the drivers wait between calls, so the setting provides a hub with an organic traffic flow that keeps the play lively and moving.
The play opens with almost funereal music. Sound designer Ben Cain’s thoughtfully subtle choice proves to be a nuanced, multi-layered foreshadowing. Mark Clayton Southers doubles as set designer, and his jitney station is perfection: simple and worn but functional. Two stacked tires provide the base for a worn checkerboard, and a mustard yellow couch tells stories without speaking – a shadow of faint head stains parade across the back cushions. A mismatched center couch cushion visually represents the motley jitney crew and how they fit together, but not always in harmony.
An ensemble cast invariably has a weak link – or two. Still, Southers’ 9-person cast is solidly A team. Moments of casual banter and scenes of conflict are equally genuine as the cast effortlessly dials into the moment and makes it real. Wilson’s words are heightened by Southers’ thoughtful direction. When Becker (owner of the jitney station) and his son, Booster (Jonathan Berry), argue, Southers positions the two men downstage with several feet between them, Booster with his arms crossed and turned away from his father. The physical distance and body language amplify the conflict and hurt between the two men.
Fielding (Mike Traylor) is able to walk the line as an alcoholic without lapsing into clownishness. Turnbo (Les Howard) is the station gossip (or nebby as us Pittsburghers would say). Howard elevates Turnbo as his long-winded stories are a meditative musing of his curiosity, and gossiping is the unproductive byproduct of the inquisitiveness that fuels him. Youngblood (Richard McBride) is a triumph. His character is more developed among the ensemble, and his youthful struggles with wanting but not always knowing how to do the right thing transcend time. Rena (Elexa Hanner) is the lone woman in the cast, and her youth and attractiveness belie her strength and assertiveness. Rena is wise beyond her years and approaches the men in her life with a relatable confidence.
The expression “if these walls could talk” springs to mind as we get to ride along for this slice of life in the jitney station’s 18-year history. Hearing those walls come to life behind the walls of August Wilson’s childhood home makes this Jitney echo in all the right ways.
Jitney runs through September 18th at the August Wilson House at 1727 Bedford Avenue in Pittsburgh. For more information and to purchase tickets for this must-see show, please visit https://www.pghplaywrights.org/jitney/
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