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‘JITNEY’ WINS: Everything soars in August Wilson’s eighth play of ‘The Pittsburgh Cycle’

Daren Beatty and Dwayne Bell in ‘Jitney.’ Photo by Joy James

 

August Wilson’s “Jitney” is making a stop at Cape Fear Playhouse. Produced by the Black Arts Alliance, Cleod Nine Productions and Triune Creative Corporation, the show is codirected by Regina McLeod and Daren Beatty. Collectively, the creative team has harnessed the collaborative nature of the script that saw several versions while being nursed into maturity. 

The eighth play in August Wilson’s “Pittsburgh Cycle,” each set in a different decade of the 20th century, “Jitney” looks at men making a living at a jitney station in the 1970s. Jitneys, or gypsy cabs, grew out of necessity for transport of people living in areas where licensed cabs refused to drive—in this case, Wilson’s neighborhood, known as The Hill District in Pittsburgh, PA. It is a traditionally African-American community and saw a massive urban renewal campaign in the mid-20th century. The impact of that on the area and its residents is a recurring theme in several of Wilson’s plays, including “Jitney.”

So the show opens at a rundown station, designed by Donna Troy. It’s a grim world, complete with a brick column outside the vaguely opaque (or is that dirt?) windows—even a cardboard piece is taped over a hole that had been kicked in a door. This isn’t a business with a public face; it’s cheap rent, and serves its purpose to hold a desk and a pay phone. It’s where jitney drivers wait on calls to go pick up fares. 

Turnbo (Fracaswell Hyman) and Youngblood (Josiah Bennetone) are playing checkers to pass the time until the next ride. Hyman’s Turnbo is a loud, opinionated gossip. He knows best and folks in his company always will be privileged by the  benefit of his commentary. Bennetone’s Youngblood is perhaps one of the characters that changes most during the show. A recently returned Vietnam vet, he is trying to make his way in the world and build a better life for his young family.  Rena, played by the amazing Joy James, is the mother of Youngblood’s child.

James holds her own as the only female character in this male-dominated world of August Wilson. (She gave an amazing performance as Risa in “Two Trains Running” at the now-defunct TheatreNOW). As my date put it, she’s really the first performer with whom the audience empathizes. The others, though very human, are more wrapped up in their own problems, whereas Rena is fighting for the safety and survival of her child. 

The phone rings and drivers cycle through the jitney station, introducing us to its denizens: Fielding (Clifton Ballard), an alcoholic who has descended from a prominent tailor’s career into driving jitneys;  Doub (Harkeem Brantley Sr.), a Korean war veteran who tries to figure out how to navigate the waters of life and keep peace among the drivers along the way … sort of. There is also the resident bookie, Shealy (Daren Beatty). He makes use of the phone for business (and personal) purposes. Clearly the numbers game is far more profitable than driving jitneys. Shealy is dressed in  a nicer suit with a spiffy hat and seems to have a pocket full of cash whenever he needs to flash it.

Beatty’s Shealy is damn charming. Surely, he knows how to watch his back, but he seems to approach most situations with a smile and good word as his first line of offense. Among the customers to drop by the jitney station to place a bet with Shealy, or get a ride home from work, is Philmore (Victor Gray).

All of this activity is a lead-up to the appearance of Mr. Becker (Maxwell Paige).  Becker ostensibly owns the station. It’s his  retirement job after working at the local mill. Paige paints a wonderful portrait of a community elder who is wearing down. He has worked for years, striven and done his best, tried to help people where he could, but at a certain point, a man just starts to run out of gas. He could have coasted on auto-pilot for a few more years with the jitneys, and probably planned to. We see that, clearly. But he has just been hit with a one-two punch: First, the jitney station is going to be torn down as part of the urban renewal project, and he has to figure out if he has the energy to rally the drivers and start over in a new spot. Second, his son, Booster (Dwayne Bell), is getting released from prison after serving his sentence for a crime he committed 20 years earlier.   

Wilson really comes at the audience sideways with this script—and it is brilliant. Also, it still is incredibly relevant. How different is the debate about having Uber and Lyft vs. taxis from the need that gave rise to the jitney service? Are we not still grappling with gentrification of traditionally African-American neighborhoods and imminent domain? Those issues are playing out in Wilmington right now. Does our government dispense justice equally and blindly? Is there not a double standard for people of color or people without financial means? How does one “re-enter” life post-incarceration after two decades?

Wilson could take an Arthur Miller-like approach and give his character long and moralistic monologues about the necessity of having a jitney service, or why the justice system is perceived differently depending upon one’s privileges in life. He assumes his audience already knows these things; his characters surely do. So, instead, he talks about the consequences of these realities.

Moving the lens from the public sphere to the private domain, how do these issues play out in family life?  Wilson builds the world for us with the other characters, but it is the struggle between Becker and his son, Booster, that is the crux of the show.  Paige and Bell turn in stunning performances that literally had me frozen rigid with anxiety, watching their world unfold before both their eyes. Instead of going straight to explosive anger, which would be an easy choice, they take us on a labyrinth journey of human emotions that wax and wane and touch and separate.  It is a pas de deux. 

Paige has long been a favorite performer, but this might be the role I had not realized I was waiting to see him inhabit. He gives grace and power equal measure without overpowering his colleagues—and that is exactly what Becker’s character was written to portray. That leadership is not always about who screams the loudest but rather who can keep the ship on course and find solutions when needed.

Operating in parallel to this deep, difficult, intractable relationship between father and son is the dance between Bennetone and James. We see struggles of young parenthood and the difficult world of parenting and family-building together. Bennetone’s internal journey is coaxed along the way from doors getting slammed in his face to endless possibilities. It is a shift that happens largely because of the mentors around him: Becker and Doub, with more of a cautionary tale from Fielding, but also because he and James (Rena) finally figure out how to see each other as partners. Watching that change cross James’ face made me want to cheer for her. She came so close to throwing it away because she just wouldn’t get out of her own head. It is beautiful.

The entire cast is great. As an ensemble they really do tell a compelling and palpable story. But Bennetone and James and Paige and Becker bring an arsenal of nuance and discoveries that make human two journeys—one beginning and one ending. Really, “Jitney” wins on all counts: evocative production design, a powerful script, insightful direction and incredible performances.

DETAILS:
Jitney
October 17-20, 7:30 p.m.; Sunday, 3 p.m.
Cape Fear Playhouse, 613 Castle St.
Tickets: $18-$22
bigdawgproductions.org

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