Playwright August Wilson sneaks up on you. For long stretches of his dramas, nothing much seems to be happening. Then comes an electric, emotional moment that hits with a wallop and makes you realize: All along, everything's been happening -- love, resentment, pain, joy and, most of all, change. Change -- societal, generational and personal -- is constant and inevitable, Wilson's work reminds us, and Jitney picks up this same theme. It's a sad, funny, wise play about responsibility, choices and the way lives affect each other. The St. Louis Black Repertory Company has mined every available nugget in Jitney and come up with an overwhelmingly powerful, moving and entertaining production.
Wilson excels at creating entire universes in nondescript rooms and backyards, where eras and lives intermingle and collide. The world of Jitney is the office of a gypsy-cab company in 1977 Pittsburgh, a location that fits the theme of the play perfectly. These men are trying to make a buck, but they also provide a community service in a neighborhood abandoned by licensed cab companies. They're all trying to do the right thing, even if they sometimes do it in the wrong way.
The jitney station is run by straight arrow Becker (William Hall), who, in addition to dealing with his drivers and hangers-on, is confronted with two pieces of news: The building that houses his office is going to be torn down, and his son is being released from prison after 20 years, during which time Becker hasn't visited him once. That's pretty much the story. As Chekhov pointed out, though, people at dinner may be just eating a meal, but at the same time their happiness is being created or destroyed. Like Chekhov, Wilson has made a career of exploring these sometimes funny, sometimes heart-wrenching moments of human interaction.
It's hard to know where to start praising this excellent ensemble. Thomas Byrd's endearing alcoholic Fielding is familiar to anyone who ever spent time in a bar, but with his eccentric gestures and laid-back delivery, he transcends type and lets us under the skin of the character. Fielding alternates between comic relief and the voice of wisdom, and Byrd takes him from the hilarious to the poetic, subtly creating a real distinction between the character's drunken and sober states. Ron Himes gives an incredibly moving performance as Becker's son, Booster, who comes looking for a connection with his father and finally finds a place in the community in an unexpected, touching way.
Frederick Charles Canada is great as the intrusive Turnbo, who would rather butt into other people's lives than look at his own problems. Dennis Lebby is solid as Doub, the voice of reason in the office, and J. Samuel Davis gives a confident and funny performance as Shealy, the neighborhood numbers-runner. As Youngblood, the talented Eric Conners represents the new generation, incomprehensible to some of the old-timers but taking charge of his life in ways they never learned.
Director Ron OJ Parson keeps his cast honest; there's not a false note in the evening. By the end of the play, we feel that these characters are family, and, as we do with family, we are willing to overlook their flaws because of the sadness, humor and struggle we've seen them go through.
Jitney was Wilson's first play, which he put away for 20-some years and recently revised. The play and the production aren't perfect. There are a few moments of clunky exposition, with both major plot points introduced within a few minutes, and although some monologues are shining examples of Wilson's poetry, others seem stuck on the page. Parson's sometimes static blocking -- more fitting to a proscenium than to the Grandel's oddly configured thrust stage -- occasionally gave us nothing but backs for extended periods. As a result, some dialogue was missed as actors spoke upstage into the acoustical void of the Grandel.
But these are minor missteps in what is overall a masterful, wonderful evening at the theater and a fine start to the Black Rep's new season.