Saturday, May 15, 2010

Theatre review: "Jitney" at Pittsburgh Playwrights-Sunday 16 May 2010

Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company has August Wilson’s Jitney vigorously and convincingly up and running. As usual, director Mark Clayton Southers knows how to bring forth truth and substance from his performers and in his craft as a set designer.

Wilson completed this in 1982. It is the eighth in his Pittsburgh Cycle, set in a worn-down Hill District jitney/gypsy cab station in 1977. It comes loaded with talk from colorful, distinctive characters, bantering, arguing and trying to work out their personal differences. It doesn’t really focus on the cultural or historical significance of the car service itself but rather remains a vehicle for looking at and into the men who work there. Wilson has devised his characters well; they behave unpredictably, humanly.

In the more than 2 and ½ hours, the conversations often circle around and around without going anywhere special, or making any significant points. In addition to a couple of somewhat revealing monologues, two major personal relationships get much attention in two long soap-opera-like scenes which seem more basic than compelling. It looks as if Wilson was trying to tell audiences that loving and stressful relationships among black families are no different than those among white people. In fact, racism here takes a back seat, with Wilson even making a good point when one character tells another to take responsibility for his own life and not blame white men. Yet, although tensions occasionally heat up, nothing powerful or strongly dramatic occurs.

Some of Wilson’s dialogue sounds well-written and expressive but the cast doesn't get the best out of it. The actors usually drop the ends of sentences, losing meaningful emphases, even if you could argue that this is a legitimate speech pattern for this culture. Southers should have done something about that.

An older man, Becker, runs the car service. His drivers include other older men, the constantly gossipy Tumbo and the heavy drinking Fielding. Another driver is youthful, volatile Youngblood. One major theme concerns Youngblood’s relationship with Rena, with whom he lives. Another is the reappearance of Becker’s son Booster, just returned from prison.

Former Pittsburgh City Councilman Sala Udin plays Becker. Despite his extensive experience as an actor, he doesn’t come across with a consistent, inner sense of specific character. Jonathan Berry, on the other hand, surges with vitality and personality as Booster. Joshua Elijah Reese makes Youngblood very real and sympathetic while Wali Jamal adds convincing solidity to another driver, Doub. Tumbo and Fielding are played by Les Howard and Lonzo Green; they also make those men genuine.

Most of the other performing, even in smaller roles, remains convincing and sincere, another indication that director Southers continues to do right by August Wilson.

Jitney continues through May 30th at Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre, downtown at Penn and Sixth Avenues. 412/394-3353

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