August Wilson's Jitney is a curiosity -- a play that feels as if it hasn't quite reached final-draft stage but takes the audience on a powerful and worthwhile journey nonetheless.
Jitney, which concerns a group of gypsy-cab drivers operating in Pittsburgh's rundown Hill district, was Wilson's first play. He wrote it as a one-act in 1979 while still a struggling poet but, after the success of such works as Joe Turner's Come and Gone and Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, decided to revise and expand his earliest work. The 1996 updates to Jitney eventually garnered the 1999-2000 Best Play award from the New York Drama Critics Circle.
Along with the accolades have come acknowledgments that the play still seems a bit incomplete -- the plot is a bare-bones affair, and a surprise ending comes off like a facile deus ex machina. So how can it be called successful? The answer is simply that the August Wilson touch, when it comes to setting and characters, gets 'em every time.
The Pittsburgh neighborhood of Jitney's setting is the sort of place in which many cab drivers might not be willing to work. Hill area residents have come to depend on the unlicensed cabs of neighborhood garages like Becker's. In Becker's 1971 office, we see African-American men (and one girlfriend) joking, fighting, drinking and kvetching. They are dressed, as one critic put it, in vintage Sanford and Son attire. "The costumes, the hairstyles, the music will definitely let you know what period it is in," says director Ron OJ Parson.
The main plotlines concern Youngblood, a troubled, cash-poor Vietnam vet who has recently been seen tooling around town with his girlfriend's sister; the relationship between Booster, a prodigal son just released after 20 years in prison, and Becker, his bitter father; and the city's threat to close a whole block of businesses, including the cab stand, in a misguided attempt to fix the ghetto.
But the lines of action are like a thin soup that isn't nearly so interesting as the meaty characters that float in it. Turnbo is an aged shit-disturber who insinuates himself between Youngblood and his lady, Rena, and lets everyone know he's not afraid to use his gun. Becker hasn't spoken to his son in 20 years, and when Booster tries to remedy that, he just meets a brick wall of a man. Even the minor characters, such as Fielding the drunk, permit us glimpses into fascinating, realistically written lives, and join in the palpable male camaraderie of the jitney garage. "The characters are so rich," says Parson, "and what I try to instill in all the actors is that each story is more than what we see, what they're saying. To me, the play takes place between the lines -- not what people say but what they feel."
The emotional punch of Jitney also comes from the second-act possibility that the business will be forced to shut down. After getting to know this group of characters, we don't want their stories, which seem so real, to be ended so abruptly. But one way or another, this play must end -- and that in itself is too bad.