Well, the late great August Wilson could, and did, in “Jitney,” the spiky comedy-drama of multiple odd couples that is currently raising risible Cain at Arena Stage. A reincarnation of a Broadway production that won a Tony Award for best play revival in 2017, it retains its director, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, and several of its Broadway cast members, including Anthony Chisholm. He is unarguably one of the theater’s finest portrayers of the gallery of dreamers and survivors in the Wilson canon.
We sometimes take for granted the playwright’s art, particularly in naturalistic works such as “Jitney.” To gird a one-set play, of nine richly detailed characters, with expository dynamism and emotional intelligence is an almost superhuman feat. It’s one Wilson pulled off many times, in works containing heightened realism and in some cases intimations of the mystical. “Jitney,” one of the 10 plays in Wilson’s 20th Century Cycle — one play about African American life set in each decade, and mostly in Pittsburgh, his hometown — is as commendably down to earth and gritty as his urban anthology gets.
Although it incorporates familiar formulas, the energy the dramatist generates among the denizens of the taxi station run by Becker (the marvelous Steven Anthony Jones) pulls us irresistibly into the psychodrama. The drivers and the people in their orbit exist in a state of constant irritation: They’ve all spent too much time together, under stress. Youngblood (Amari Cheatom) is a skirt-chasing Vietnam vet trying to adjust to a faithful relationship with Rena (Nija Okoro); abrasive, hair-trigger Turnbo (Ray Anthony Thomas) has his nose ceaselessly in everyone else’s business; Shealy (Harvy Blanks), the local numbers runner, is too slick not to get on Becker’s nerves and Chisholm’s Fielding liquors up between fares.
“Jitney” is occupied with recurring Wilson themes: the gradual gentrification of the Hill District; the economic and psychological oppression that weighs down and sometimes divides the black community. Santiago-Hudson, a Tony winner for his own performance in Wilson’s “Seven Guitars,” understands that “Jitney” is a character-driven piece, despite the involved subplots. The stories of Youngblood and Rena, and Becker and his ex-con son Booster (Francois Battiste) dominate the evening, but the success of the play depends on our grasping an ineffable, collective dependency among the cabdrivers. Their livelihoods are tenuous, and even the physical domain they share is perishable, with the city harboring plans to tear the block down. Underlying the tensions is a powerful bond forged on the edge of desperation.
David Gallo’s set fits impressively in the Kreeger Theater; it’s a facsimile of the design he used in the Broadway production, shabby down to the grimy walls and broken linoleum floor — a ruins-in-progress. Jane Cox’s lighting design includes some lovely touches that ease us across the breaks in the action, and Toni-Leslie James has an infallible eye for the style of the ’70s, especially in the flashy crayon-colored suits for Shealy. Jazzy underscoring by Bill Sims Jr. completes the sense of mature conception.
Santiago-Hudson’s achievement on Broadway with “Jitney” was to confirm that Wilson in a lighter vein did not mean Wilson Lite. Elements of the tragic do assert themselves in “Jitney,” but all in all, the play demonstrates the playwright’s mastery of comedy better than any other play in the cycle. And Blanks, Thomas and Chisholm especially brandish the weapons of mass amusement here like practiced marksmen. Along with an excellent Keith Randolph Smith, as the most even-tempered driver, Doub, they were in the Broadway cast, with Thomas moving up from a less consequential role to the more prominent Turnbo for the Arena run.
Chisholm is a particular pleasure. You could swear a boozy mist follows him under the stage lights. The eyes are a hazy wonder, the voice an instrument employed for impeccable timing. Even the way he rises slowly and gingerly from the couch is redolent of character: Both Fielding and the sofa have seen better days.
As with many of Wilson’s plays, “Jitney” develops at its own pace, but that is not to say it ever stalls. Nope, not for a second. The director here runs a tight production. It’s all in good time in the Kreeger, with an emphasis on good.
Jitney, by August Wilson. Directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson. Set, David Gallo; costumes, Toni-Leslie James; lighting, Jane Cox; sound, Darron L. West and Charles Coes; music, Bill Sims Jr. With Brian D. Coats. About 2 hours and 45 minutes. Tickets: $41 to $105, subject to change and based on availability, plus fees. Through Oct. 20 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. 202-488-3300. arenastage.org