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THEATER REVIEW: South Coast Rep stages “Jitney,” August Wilson’s first play

Urban renewal may be the least of the problems threatening the drivers in a black-owned cab service in August Wilson’s “Jitney,” playing through June 10 at South Coast Repertory Theatre.

“Jitney” is Wilson’s first play but became the eighth in the chronological list of his famous 10-play “Pittsburgh Cycle,” each dedicated to one decade. This play never opened on Broadway, but has done well in regional theaters.

“Jitney” offers a glimpse into the lives of the men who work in and around a gypsy cab station in Pittsburgh’s Hill District that has been run for the past 18 years by the reliable and honest Becker (Charlie Robinson).

On this August day in 1977, group busybody Turnbo (Ellis E. Williams) and the much younger Youngblood (Larry Bates) are in a heated checkers game, alcoholic driver Fielding (David McKnight) has run out of gin and numbers runner Shealy (Rolando Boyce) wants Becker to get his nephew a job at the mill.

Youngblood has just put a down payment on a house for girlfriend Rena (Kristy Johnson), mother of his 2-year-old, but now finds he needs more money for the title search. Korean War veteran Doub (James A. Watson, Jr.), probably the most level-headed of the group, worries about the closure of the stand.

It’s an average day in the life until the fourth scene, when Becker’s sorrow walks in. His son Booster (Montae Russell), just released from prison after a 20-year stretch for murder, just wants to reconnect with his father, but straight-arrow Becker will have none of it. In fact, he blames Booster for his wife’s death (she collapsed in the courtroom Becker never set foot in, and never recovered). And he shocks by leaving the room when Booster tries to talk to him.

“Jitney” seems almost like two plays, and in a sense it is. The first act lulls you with its slice-of-life approach until the drama bomb is dropped in the last scene with Booster’s entrance.

The second act is nearly all drama: Will Becker and Booster make peace? Will Youngblood and Rena iron out their differences? Will the stand be closed?

The first version of the play (1982) was shelved until 1996, when Wilson revised it, deepening the relationships and heighten the drama between Becker and Booster and between Youngblood and Rena, creating a different feel for the play.

Director Ron OJ Parson has a sterling cast, headed by Robinson’s solid Becker, whose line readings are inerrant and whose scenes with the fine Russell as Booster are both telling and heartbreaking.

Williams’ yenta Turnbo amuses (and annoys), but behind that is a quick trigger of violence that can be frightening. Bates shows plenty of youthful vigor and claims the willingness to change his former philandering ways, and he and Johnson’s Rena have some fine chemistry.

McKnight’s happy drunk Fielding may be a type, but he’s absolutely human; everyone knows a Fielding. Boyce’s snappily dressed numbers guy Shealy is amusing. Watson Jr. brings a steady presence to Doub.

On Shaun Motley’s perfectly appointed set, life goes on, punctuated by frequent ride requests to the pay phone on the wall. Vincent Olivieri’s ’70s sound design adds to the atmosphere, as do Dana Rebecca Woods’ costumes (remember all those plaids?).

“Jitney” is Wilson’s first play. It isn’t his best, but it’s certainly worth seeing and this is as good a reading as you’re likely to see. This production moves to the Pasadena Playhouse after its run at South Coast Rep.

The details

“Jitney” plays through June 10 at South Coast Repertory Theatre, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.

Sunday, Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:30 pm; Thursday through Saturday at 8 pm; matinees Saturday and Sunday at 2:30 pm.

For tickets, call 714-708-5555 or visit HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.