These flawed, funny cabbies have character
August Wilson’s play Jitney takes Arena Stage audiences on a hilarious, heartfelt, soul-searing, tragic and deeply human ride through life, as lived by the drivers, and other frequenters, of an unlicensed cab station in the African-American Pittsburgh Hill District in 1977.
Jitney is the eighth play in the Pulitzer Prize-winning Wilson’s cycle of 10 plays about the lives of African Americans in 20th-century Pittsburgh. Among the playwright’s now-acknowledged theater masterpieces are Gem of the Ocean, Fences and The Piano Lesson, the latter two winning Pulitzer Prizes.
Jitney was written in 1979 and spent nearly a year off-Broadway 20 years later. It didn’t make it to Broadway itself until 2017, when it won a Tony for best revival.
One of the play’s main themes is the looming gentrification of the area that will shut down businesses, including the “gypsy” cab location, forcing people out of their homes and workplaces in the name of development. Some may see similarities to the current situation in some neighborhoods of Washington, D.C.
The nine characters in the play are flawed but funny, making decisions that complicate their lives and often the lives of those closest to them. Yet their spirit comes through as they try to deal with one another and with themselves.
Each of the characters — and they are real characters — is driven by a mini-drama, some more dark and brooding than others. But their histories are often softened by a deep and comic self-awareness.
The lively, swinging production, under the expert directorial hand of Ruben Santiago-Hudson, runs two-and-a-half hours with an intermission.
Life on the other side
Set in a slightly rundown, homey hangout-office, the play centers around hard times, both personal and economic, as cab drivers serve black residents in Pittsburgh neighborhoods where regular cab companies fear to go.
The unlicensed “gypsy” cab station is run by Becker (an upright but damaged Steven Anthony Jones). Its drivers include Youngblood (Amiri Cheatom), a young Vietnam vet who can be as charming as he can be devious; Turnbo (Ray Anthony Thomas), an older, potentially violent complainer about the 1970s youth of “today;” Doub (Keith Randolph Smith), a mild-mannered veteran of the Korean War who is accepting of most other people and their situations; and Fielding (Anthony Chisholm), a onetime tailor to the stars — he mentions once making suits for singer Billy Eckstine — whose battles with the bottle threaten his job.
Also making themselves emphatically known with their excellent acting are Rena (Nija Okoru), Youngblood’s longtime girlfriend and mother of their son, who finally manages to bring out the more humane side of her partner; Shealy (Harvey Blanks), a snazzy numbers-runner who uses the station’s phone to collect his clients’ hopes and money; and Philmore (Brian D. Coates), a faithful hotel doorman and customer of the gypsy cab drivers he relies on to get him to work whenever his girlfriend throws him out of the house, which is often.
The rocky relationship between Becker and his son, Booster (Francoise Battiste), provides one of the deepest and saddest emotional moments of the comedy-drama. Booster, just released from prison, is still locked up psychologically. The son killed a woman he loved, and his sentence to the electric chair (before a reprieve) killed his mother, leading to a life of damnation between father and son.
While the characters and their stories explore to one degree or another the turbulent relationships between father and son, husband and wife, and race in America, its strongest suit is the serio-comic relationships that are forever needed to keep people sane in the spinning world.
Joseph P. Salasovich created the just-right period costumes (oversized collars and shades of brown and black), and David Gallo designed a wonderfully homey yet funky set, complete with a worn linoleum floor.
Director Santiago-Hudson also steered many of the current cast on stage during the play’s Broadway run. He is a Tony Award winning actor as well, for his role in Wilson’s Seven Guitars.
Though Jitney is about certain people in a certain time and place, the play is universal and timeless in its humor, understanding and suggestion of potential redemption for the all-too-human race.
The play will run through October 20 at Arena Stage, 1101 6th St. SE, Washington, D.C. For tickets and a performance schedule, call the box office at (202) 488-3300 or visit arenastage.org.