Even if "Jitney" weren't a good play, it would be an important one -- the first play Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson wrote in his decade-by-decade chronicle of 20th-century African-American life.
But "Jitney" is a very good play, and I won't be surprised if director Marion McClinton's production is the runaway hit of the Center Stage season. Set in the 1970s, when Wilson wrote the initial script, the play takes place in a jitney -- or gypsy cab -- station in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, the same neighborhood that is home to most of Wilson's plays.
David Gallo's wonderfully detailed set, which includes three real cars in the background, is the first one I can recall in which the Hill District has an actual incline. This is the kind of detail that does justice to Wilson's carefully detailed writing, in which each character is a fully realized individual with a rich story to tell, and all of those stories come together like a collage or patchwork quilt to form a vibrant, unified whole.
There's the station gossip, Stephen McKinley Henderson's argumentative Turnbo, a small man with far too big a mouth; Anthony Chisholm's Fielding, a scarecrow-like shell, who sacrificed his marriage and talents as a master tailor to the bottle; Barry Shabaka Henley's sensible Doub, the most easygoing of the jitney drivers, although his hackles are readily raised by Turnbo's loose talk; and Russell Hornsby's cocky Youngblood, the youngest driver and a Vietnam vet who's desperately trying to make something of his life.
The play's central event is the conflict between the station boss, Paul Butler's weary Becker, and his estranged son, Booster (an earnest Keith Randolph Smith), who's just been released from the penitentiary after serving 20 years for murder. Wilson has said this relationship has been the focus of most of his rewrites. The way he now ends the interaction between father and son not only feels genuine but also accentuates the poignancy of the play's final scene -- one of the most moving in this gifted playwright's canon.
There are some slow patches in the production, particularly between Hornsby's Youngblood and his girlfriend, Rena (Michole Briana White). Although Hornsby and White individually deliver solid performances, together they are more convincing as adversaries than lovers. Tightening the script has got to be a tough task, since each of these highly specific characters is such a skilled talker. But introducing more concision into some of the monologues would increase the overall impact of the play.
McClinton's direction includes a number of telling touches that complement Wilson's writing beautifully -- such as Fielding resisting one last nip from his ever-present bottle, or Youngblood pulling out a checkerboard for a conciliatory rematch with his nemesis, Turnbo. Small as these things are, they add up, enhancing our sense of the changes each character undergoes in the course of the play.
It's not difficult to spot the seeds of many of Wilson's subsequent plays in "Jitney," which packs as much power as his better-known plays. There's the same threat of demolition due to urban renewal that hovers over "Two Trains Running," the strained father-son relationship that surfaces in "Fences," and most of all, the emphasis on an ensemble of characters whose concerns reflect the concerns of their community -- in this case, lack of employment, holding a family together and achieving stability in a place where the walls are literally about to come tumbling down.
Wilson hadn't even considered creating a cycle of plays when he wrote "Jitney," but this is the play in which he found his voice as a playwright, the voice that made all his other plays possible.
"Jitney" was initially a 90-minute play, which was surely too short for such compelling material. At its current length of two hours and 45 minutes, the play takes a little too long to reach its destination. But even if the trip meanders, this is one heck of a ride.
Where: Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 7: 30 p.m. most Sundays, matinees 2 p.m. Sundays and most Saturdays and 1 p.m. Jan. 27; through Feb. 14
Call: 410-332-0033 Pub Date: 1/14/99