By Nelson Pressley
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, January 27, 2007
Jitneys ain't limos, nor is "Jitney" the most gleaming theatrical vehicle from the late August Wilson. The play, driven largely by gossip, idles noisily as the men working in a gypsy cab service tell extravagant tales of life in Pittsburgh's Hill District.
But if "Jitney" meanders even by Wilson's own profoundly unhurried standard, the exuberantly acted production at Ford's Theatre, produced with the African Continuum Theatre Company, proves that the play still gives audiences a pretty good ride.
That's partly because the gossip is juicy -- one early report has a woman named Cigar Annie causing a traffic jam by holding up her dress -- and the tales have spunk, starting with a minor character's funny speech about how a woman's face continues to haunt him.
Under the guidance of ACTC Producing Artistic Director Jennifer L. Nelson, the cast rips into the characters right away. You can sense a real edge as KenYatta Rogers's hotheaded Youngblood quits a game of checkers with Doug Brown's provocatively gossipy Turnbo. And as David Emerson Toney's fragile, alcoholic Fielding urgently tries to borrow four dollars from Cleo Reginald Pizana's big but genial Doub.
Nothing's really happening, but the long first act is fraught with the possibility that something might. Turnbo, played with chatty stubbornness that Brown is able to milk for laughs and menace, runs his mouth until he's steered Youngblood into trouble with his girl, Rena (Jessica Frances Dukes). Then there's some talk that the block's about to be torn down -- it's 1977, an era of ineffectual urban renewal. Becker, the roundly admired man whose rules are posted on the wall of this lively jitney service, will have to close.
Well into the play, we also learn that Booster, Becker's son, is getting out of prison after a 20-year stint. There's a long story behind that, and Becker and Booster exhaustively give two sides of it in the play's most explosive scene.
You can practically feel Wilson -- an emerging playwright when he wrote this -- listening to all of it, justifiably fascinated and possibly praying for his speech-slinging people to talk themselves into something resembling a plot. Yet in this installment of his decades cycle chronicling 20th-century African American life, it seems beyond Wilson to tease out a story line for very long.
As soon as the Youngblood-Rena crisis comes to a boil, for instance, the lovers hash it all out in a scene, throwing their whole lives on the table. It could virtually stand as a one-act play, and Rogers in particular exploits the emotional roller coaster, finding fascinating dimensions of nearly all the stops between resentment and devotion.
Such are the payoffs for hanging around as Wilson presses along unpredictable byways. Few scenes in his remarkable oeuvre are as indelible as the Becker-Booster encounter that comes almost out of the blue and quickly injects the show with waves of familial pain. Wilson's "Fences" might be the more thorough treatment of a brittle father-son relationship, but the sudden rawness of this clash can be electric.
It's here that "Jitney" discovers imposing moral themes that gradually resonate to the far edges of the play -- brought into focus by the racial circumstances of Booster's violent crime. If this Becker (Frederick Strother) and Booster (Craig Wallace) don't utterly knock the audience out with their exchange, possibly it's because Strother's Becker is a recognizably decent man -- not an outsize monument to conventional principle, as he's often played.
As Wallace's ultimately wrenching Booster delineates a more radical stand, Strother gives an appealing, occasionally commanding performance that rings with honesty. But the simple rectitude of this Becker leaves room for something bigger.
Even so, the production finds a center of gravity here, and the struggles begin to feel of a piece as the stories jangle on. A lifelike tone sneaks up beneath the entertaining language in details that Nelson's production team handles artfully, from the tall storefront windows and endlessly ringing pay phone of Tony Cisek's nicely rundown set to the loud patterns and flared pants of Reggie Ray's costumes.
Then there's the jazzy rhythm of agitation and camaraderie that Nelson's cast of local actors charts with relish, creating a sense of people vamping as they search for the thing that will hold their lives together once and for all.
For many of them, Becker is that bond -- yet throughout the engaging, complicated "Jitney," Wilson challenges his main character's tenet that life can be successfully lived according to a series of handwritten rules.
Jitney, by August Wilson. Directed by Jennifer L. Nelson. Lighting design, Dan Covey; sound design, Chas Marsh. With Michael Anthony Williams and Addison Switzer. About 2 1/2 hours. Through Feb. 18 at Ford's Theatre, 511 10th St. NW. Call 202-397-7328 or visit http://www.fordstheatre.org