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Theater Review: “August Wilson’s Jitney”

“August Wilson’s Jitney” plays through February 23, 2020 on The Old Globe’s Donald and Darlene Shiley Stage 1363 Old Globe Way in Balboa Park.
Photo credit:
Joan Marcus

“Jitney” is part of playwright August Wilson’s 10-part “Pittsburgh Cycle” of plays chronicling African American life throughout the 20th century. The eighth in the series, it was the first written but the last to be performed on Broadway, in 2017.

The Wilson cycle has connections with San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre, which years ago collaborated on pre-Broadway productions of three other plays in the series. Now Ruben Santiago-Hudson directs “Jitney” at The Old Globe through Feb. 23. (The Globe is calling it “August Wilson’s Jitney” to give the playwright his due; he died in 2005.)

This production – which boasts five of the original Broadway cast members – makes San Diego one stop on a tour that will end at Seattle Repertory Theatre.

It’s a fine production with excellent acting all around.

When the black residents of Pittsburgh’s Hill District found that cab drivers wouldn’t serve their neighborhood, they solved their own problem by opening a jitney stand, where unlicensed cabs served customers.

Becker (Steven Anthony Jones) runs the stand on a ramshackle old property that had been (and still has evidence of) a barbershop, a beauty salon and a butcher shop. The interior space needs only three things: a door, a wall phone and a couch.

Becker doesn’t work alone: several friends share the driving business and wait for the phone to ring, playing cards, drinking, talking about women and sometimes arguing.

Denizens of the stand include Youngblood (Amari Cheatom), a Vietnam veteran who is saving up for a surprise for girlfriend Rena (Nija Okoro), and gossipy hothead Turnbo (Ray Anthony Thomas), who will make trouble for those two and create a frightening scene.

Alcoholic Fielding (Anthony Chisholm) hides bottles under the couch pad and reminisces about the old days when he made clothes for Billy Eckstine and Count Basie. Shealy (Harvy Blanks) doesn’t drive; he’s a flashy dresser who runs a numbers game out of the stand. Regular guy and Korean War vet Doub (Keith Randolph Smith) and Brian D. Coats as Philmore, a doorman who drops by now and then, round out the cast.

It’s evident that Wilson’s characters care about each other. For all the yelling, they’re all obviously just trying to make it from one day to the next.

Most of the first act is spent establishing these characters in the back-and-forth banter Wilson is known for. But drama walks in late in the first act with Becker’s son Booster (Francois Battiste), released early from prison, where he had served 20 years for killing his girlfriend who had falsely accused him of rape.

Booster wants to reconcile with his dad, but Becker regards the boy as his signature failure in life and wants nothing to do with him. It’s this scene that grabs the viewer by the throat and sets up the drama in the second act.

Becker has something to worry about besides Booster, and it affects the business. The city has given notice that the property will be leveled to make way for a redevelopment project. How will they survive?

Atmosphere is one of the best things about The Old Globe’s production of “August Wilson’s Jitney.”

Scenic designer David Gallo gives us a properly shabby station with desk, fridge, an ancient, lived-in couch (the kind with armrests you can sit on) and an old wall phone, along with areas on the floor where beauty parlor seats once stood and other evidence of previous occupation.

Outside is a collage of photographs of Pittsburgh (some taken by Wilson), and two amazing old cars of the time. Original music by Bill Sims, Jr. provides a bluesy-jazzy background for the goings-on inside.

Costume designer Toni-Leslie James, lighting designer Jane Cox and sound designers Darron L. West and Charles Coes provide background.

This isn’t my favorite of the series, but Wilson/Old Globe connection continues with this addition.

The details

“August Wilson’s Jitney” plays through February 23, 2020 on The Old Globe’s Donald and Darlene Shiley Stage 1363 Old Globe Way in Balboa Park.

Tuesday and Wednesday at 7 pm; Thursday and Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m.; Sunday at 2 and 7 pm.