Author August Wilson had an intimate knowledge of the people he molded, people facing real problems in the real world with stamina and a bit of humor always kept in reserve. Written in 1979, JITNEY is the eighth in Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle and was first produced in a small repertory theater in Pittsburgh. Wilson kept tweaking the script until 2000, when it finally opened off-Broadway. After the play opened in London in 2001, JITNEY won the Olivier Award for the best play of the year. Yet JITNEY was not to reach Broadway until 2017, where it won a Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play.
For the uninitiated, jitney is a Pittsburgh term for the unlicensed gypsy cabs which plied the Pittsburgh Hill District of the 1970’s, when other taxis would not venture into the area. Jim Becker (Steven Anthony Jones) is the respected manager of a jitney station whose offices have become the central meeting point for most of the truly interesting characters in the neighborhood. Becker’s unofficial “second-in-command” is the gossipy driver Turnbo (Ray Anthony Thomas), who just can’t seem to keep his mouth shut. Then there’s Youngblood (Amari Cheatom), a driver and Vietnam vet who is trying to make ends meet for his girlfriend Rena (Nija Okoro) and their young son. Whenever Shealy (Harvy Blanks), a flamboyant bookie who works out of the station, enters the room, the world speeds up to keep pace with his tomfoolery. The alcoholic Fielding (Anthony Chisholm) and the Korean War veteran Doub (Keith Randolph Smith) round out the guys who gravitate to Becker’s little home-away-from-home.
Last but by no means least is Becker’s biggest disappointment and only son Booster () who murdered his girlfriend in a fit of rage and has spent the last 20 years in prison. Things are going along smoothly and predictably in the station – until Booster gets out of prison and comes home to the father who has disowned him and will never forgive him. Meanwhile, the neighborhood around the station is gentrifying – and maybe Becker will be forced to board up his beloved hub sooner rather than later. Progress: the handwriting is on the wall.
Wilson’s strengths shine as he weaves the humble yet fascinating tale of a group of social misfits who somehow found a home in a jitney station. It quickly becomes apparent that Wilson has a keen and discerning ear for the sounds, slang, words, and unspoken messages that come out of their mouths almost like lyrics in a down-home song – sometimes tragic and sometimes hilarious. Brilliantly directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, JITNEY has a life of its own – with the audience as spectators to what feels like a real-life drama. Santiago-Hudson is amply aided by a superb ensemble cast who can give the impression that there’s no one else in the room as they go about their everyday business.
Kudos to David Gallo’s scenic design, which manages to show interior and exterior at the same time in a very original and creative way. It feels a lot like Pittsburgh! The entire production crew has a hand in temporarily moving Pittsburgh to Los Angeles and making the rest of the world go away.
JITNEY runs through December 29, 2019, with performances at 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, at 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. on Saturdays, and at 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. on Sundays. No performances at 8 p.m. on Thanksgiving 11/28; Christmas Eve 12/24, Christmas Day 12/25, and no performance at 6:30 p.m. on Sunday 12/29. No public performances on Tuesday 12/3 and Wednesday 12/4. Added performances at 8 p.m. on Monday 12/23 and at 2:30 p.m. on Thursday 12/26. The Mark Taper Forum is located at the Music Center, 135 N. Grand Avenue, Los Angeles, 90012. Tickets range from $45 to $125. For information and reservations, call 213-628-2772 or go online.