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August Wilson’s Jitney ripples and runs like fabric

What makes it hum and throb are the voices.

August Wilson’s Jitney: The voices carry the words.
August Wilson’s Jitney: The voices carry the words.

Playwright August Wilson is rightly celebrated for his wordsmithing — or maybe word-weaving would be better, or word-spinning. The talk that animates his late-’70s work Jitney (though it wasn’t produced until 1996) doesn’t feel worked-over and hammered into shape; it’s too fluid for that. It ripples and runs like fabric, reels out like thread. The appeal lies not so much in the stories they tell — the play takes place in the wake of news that the Pittsburgh Renewal Council is planning to raze the block that holds the titular car service, but it’s not exactly about that — nor in content of the occasional pronouncements (“Time go along, and then it come around”), some of which verge into greeting-card territory (“I don’t have all the answers; I don’t even have all the questions; but I do know it takes two to find them”).

Rather, it’s the tumbling and piling and sidewinding, as when the busybody Turnbo slips and slides around everybody’s insistence that he keep his mouth shut and mind his own business, eventually concluding that “I ain’t never been one to bite my tongue about expressing an opinion,” making their censure tantamount to an attack on his very identity. Or the punching and counter-punching when father Becker and his son Booster confront each other about the violent act that sundered their relationship: the father’s river of shame raging against the son’s stony pride.

But what makes director Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s revival hum and throb are the voices that deliver those words, and the bodies that house those voices. (He has wisely kept five of the eight actors he had for the play’s 2017 Broadway premiere, and it is a very nearly perfect cast.) Even the old and broken ones have power: there is a perpetually outraged dignity in the drunken Fielding’s thick speech; you can hear — you can feel — the man struggling to be heard through the booze. He knows he is ruined, but he can still remember a time when he was not. Conversely, boss man Becker’s speech rings with barrel-chested power, yet still intimates the weariness and heartbreak that dog him daily. (Becker is a cracked pillar of the community; a man who did everything right and suffered everything well in order to build a life for himself and a future for his family, only to see his livelihood jeopardized and his family’s future all but doomed.) And the ones that aren’t broken positively fill the ear. When Korean War vet Doub lays into Vietnam War vet Youngblood about the way his struggles are tempting him toward self-pity, there isn’t much room for argument. Right or wrong, Doub speaks with authority. (Why right or wrong? Because I suspect that today’s critics of systemic racism would have some trouble with his command that Youngblood “Shake off that ‘White folks are against me’ attitude,” followed by his insistence that “the opportunity is there to make something of yourself.”)

So yes, the voices you hear and the words those voices speak and the men who speak those words make this production thoroughly worthwhile, even if it’s not a perfect play. It loses considerable steam after the first act’s thundering conclusion, such that even the best talk may start to feel indulgent. And the romantic dustup that opens the second act is not the best talk. Plus, there’s a bit of officina ex machina brought in to set up the story’s resolution — itself a strangely feel-good moment that doesn’t quite feel of a piece with what’s come before. Becker suffers, but it’s Booster who gets short shrift. Perhaps Wilson wanted to give the audience some comfort by way of thanks for their sympathetic witness to all the sadness and decay that’s come before.

Speaking of decay: David Gallo’s set, depicting the jitney station and its immediate exterior, was justly nominated for a Tony. The attention to detail is astonishing: the duct tape on an armchair’s cracked leather armrest, the gray floorboards peeking through the cracked linoleum tile, the marked-up map of the territory. And it’s all enhanced by Jane Cox’s clever lighting; the station’s windows show us daytime, dawn, and night — illumined by headlights or plunged in midnight darkness — with equal verisimilitude. It’s probably trite to say that a set helps make place a character in the proceedings; then again, the name of the show is not Becker, nor Drivers, but Jitney.

  • Jitney, by August Wilson
  • The Old Globe’s Donald and Darlene Shiley Stage, 1363 Old Globe Way, Balboa Park
  • Directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, cast: Steven Anthony Jones, Francois Battiste, Amari Cheatom, Ray Anthony Thomas, Keith Randolph Smith, Brian D. Coats, Anthony Chisolm, Harvy Blanks, Nija Okoro; scenic design, David Gallo; costumes, Toni-Leslie James; lighting, Jane Cox; sound, Darron L. West and Charles Coes; music, Bill Sims Jr.
  • Playing through February 23, Wednesday, 7 pm; Thursday and Friday, 8 pm; Saturday, 2 pm and 8 pm; Sunday, 2 pm and 7 pm.
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August Wilson’s Jitney: The voices carry the words.
August Wilson’s Jitney: The voices carry the words.

Playwright August Wilson is rightly celebrated for his wordsmithing — or maybe word-weaving would be better, or word-spinning. The talk that animates his late-’70s work Jitney (though it wasn’t produced until 1996) doesn’t feel worked-over and hammered into shape; it’s too fluid for that. It ripples and runs like fabric, reels out like thread. The appeal lies not so much in the stories they tell — the play takes place in the wake of news that the Pittsburgh Renewal Council is planning to raze the block that holds the titular car service, but it’s not exactly about that — nor in content of the occasional pronouncements (“Time go along, and then it come around”), some of which verge into greeting-card territory (“I don’t have all the answers; I don’t even have all the questions; but I do know it takes two to find them”).

Rather, it’s the tumbling and piling and sidewinding, as when the busybody Turnbo slips and slides around everybody’s insistence that he keep his mouth shut and mind his own business, eventually concluding that “I ain’t never been one to bite my tongue about expressing an opinion,” making their censure tantamount to an attack on his very identity. Or the punching and counter-punching when father Becker and his son Booster confront each other about the violent act that sundered their relationship: the father’s river of shame raging against the son’s stony pride.

But what makes director Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s revival hum and throb are the voices that deliver those words, and the bodies that house those voices. (He has wisely kept five of the eight actors he had for the play’s 2017 Broadway premiere, and it is a very nearly perfect cast.) Even the old and broken ones have power: there is a perpetually outraged dignity in the drunken Fielding’s thick speech; you can hear — you can feel — the man struggling to be heard through the booze. He knows he is ruined, but he can still remember a time when he was not. Conversely, boss man Becker’s speech rings with barrel-chested power, yet still intimates the weariness and heartbreak that dog him daily. (Becker is a cracked pillar of the community; a man who did everything right and suffered everything well in order to build a life for himself and a future for his family, only to see his livelihood jeopardized and his family’s future all but doomed.) And the ones that aren’t broken positively fill the ear. When Korean War vet Doub lays into Vietnam War vet Youngblood about the way his struggles are tempting him toward self-pity, there isn’t much room for argument. Right or wrong, Doub speaks with authority. (Why right or wrong? Because I suspect that today’s critics of systemic racism would have some trouble with his command that Youngblood “Shake off that ‘White folks are against me’ attitude,” followed by his insistence that “the opportunity is there to make something of yourself.”)

So yes, the voices you hear and the words those voices speak and the men who speak those words make this production thoroughly worthwhile, even if it’s not a perfect play. It loses considerable steam after the first act’s thundering conclusion, such that even the best talk may start to feel indulgent. And the romantic dustup that opens the second act is not the best talk. Plus, there’s a bit of officina ex machina brought in to set up the story’s resolution — itself a strangely feel-good moment that doesn’t quite feel of a piece with what’s come before. Becker suffers, but it’s Booster who gets short shrift. Perhaps Wilson wanted to give the audience some comfort by way of thanks for their sympathetic witness to all the sadness and decay that’s come before.

Speaking of decay: David Gallo’s set, depicting the jitney station and its immediate exterior, was justly nominated for a Tony. The attention to detail is astonishing: the duct tape on an armchair’s cracked leather armrest, the gray floorboards peeking through the cracked linoleum tile, the marked-up map of the territory. And it’s all enhanced by Jane Cox’s clever lighting; the station’s windows show us daytime, dawn, and night — illumined by headlights or plunged in midnight darkness — with equal verisimilitude. It’s probably trite to say that a set helps make place a character in the proceedings; then again, the name of the show is not Becker, nor Drivers, but Jitney.

  • Jitney, by August Wilson
  • The Old Globe’s Donald and Darlene Shiley Stage, 1363 Old Globe Way, Balboa Park
  • Directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, cast: Steven Anthony Jones, Francois Battiste, Amari Cheatom, Ray Anthony Thomas, Keith Randolph Smith, Brian D. Coats, Anthony Chisolm, Harvy Blanks, Nija Okoro; scenic design, David Gallo; costumes, Toni-Leslie James; lighting, Jane Cox; sound, Darron L. West and Charles Coes; music, Bill Sims Jr.
  • Playing through February 23, Wednesday, 7 pm; Thursday and Friday, 8 pm; Saturday, 2 pm and 8 pm; Sunday, 2 pm and 7 pm.
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