Review: A Vital "Jitney" Hits Home

Nov. 26, 2019 | By Bruce R. Feldman

"Jitney," Mark Taper Forum, Los Angeles, Nov. 22 – Dec 29, 2019

In Brief: Is it a mark of the enduring nature of August Wilson’s genius that his 1979 play “Jitney” still feels relevant or is it a sad, prophetic reflection of the racial animus and economic injustice that divides America to this day? This spot-on production, revived to wide acclaim on Broadway in 2017 and now in Los Angeles for a limited run, hauntingly demonstrates that it may well be both.

Ray Anthony Thomas, Steven Anthony Jones, Anthony Chisholm, Keith Randolph Smith, and Amari Cheatom in August Wilson’s “Jitney” (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Wilson has structured the play as a kind of human comedy that begins good naturedly enough, yet ultimately reveals the melancholy and desperation lurking behind the anecdotes and bluster of its protagonists.

Alternately very funny and stirring, this Jitney explodes with vitality, consequence, and humanity, thanks to Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s meticulous, tender direction and also to an exceptional cast.

The story is set in a well-worn gypsy cab station in an impoverished Pittsburgh neighborhood in the late 1970s. We are quickly introduced to the drivers, characters who are memorable for the views that separate them, as well as for the gifted actors who bring these roles to life.

"Jitney" is a human comedy that begins good naturedly enough, yet ultimately reveals the melancholy and desperation lurking behind the anecdotes and bluster of its protagonists.

There’s the defeated, go-along-get-along Korean War vet Doub (Keith Randolph Smith); the chatty agitator Turnbo (Ray Anthony Thomas); the alcoholic cutup Fielding (a slick Anthony Chisholm); and the restless Youngblood (a fierce Amari Cheatom), determined to buy a house and make a new life for himself, his girlfriend, and their baby.

Harvy Blanks gives another first-rate performance as the colorful Shealy, a numbers runner who operates out of the cab station.

Steven Anthony Jones is simply magnificent as the station owner, Becker, the peacemaker, appeaser, interlocutor, and moral compass to this group of misfits. His tense, impassioned monologue at the end of the first act, when his estranged son (Francois Battiste) returns from 20 years behind bars, is one of the dramatic highlights of the season.

Designer David Gallo’s detailed, highly atmospheric set presents the cab station as a world unto itself. It’s a refuge, but one that won’t last for long. The drab tenements we see through the station’s windows are about to come down as the city makes way for new housing.

Steven Anthony Jones and Francois Battiste in August Wilson’s “Jitney,” directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Will that be a boon or another setback for Wilson’s long-simmering characters? Fifty years after the play’s creation, we now know that the urban redevelopment that leveled neighborhoods didn’t improve the lives of the residents it replaced. Perhaps Wilson suspected that, too, when he first set out to tell this story.

Also noteworthy: the moody blues and jazz score composed and played by Bill Sims Jr. From the first notes we hear as the house lights do down, it signals that we are about to see something special.

And, indeed, that’s what Santiago-Hudson, his designers, and remarkable cast have given us – a moving, intimate look into the frustrated hopes and thwarted dreams of ordinary Americans and the system that failed them.

“Jitney,” Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles (213) 628-2772, www.centertheatregroup.org

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