African American Shakespeare Company’s Artistic Director L. Peter Callender starred in and directed their most recent production of the late August Wilson’s eighth play, Jitney at Marines Memorial Theatre in San Francisco. Wilson, who wrote 10 plays that make up his legendary Pittsburgh Cycle, is truly a titan of the American Theatre. Each play takes place in a different decade as a means of illuminating the black American experience in the 20th century. Like the more recent Oscar nominated film version of his play Fences, Jitney is a story of fathers, sons, brotherhood, love, loss and hope, and particularly in the lives of the jitney drivers at the worn-down station owned by Jim Becker (played by L. Peter Callender).
In the era of the 1970’s, regular taxis would not travel to the Pittsburgh Hill District and so unofficial unlicensed cabs called jitneys were what residents of the community used. The regular drivers at Becker’s station consist of Youngblood (Edward Neville Ewell), a recently returned Vietnam veteran, gossipy hot-tempered Turnbo (Shawnj West), the calm natured Korean War veteran Doub (Jonathan Smothers), memory laden alcoholic Fielding (Trevor Nigel Lawrence), the smart dressed numbers runner Shealy (Fred Pitts) who isn’t a driver but uses the station as his business base and Philmore (Gift Harris) a local Hotel doorman and frequent jitney passenger.
Turnbo sticks his nose in everyone’s business and starts off the conflict by telling Youngblood’s girlfriend Rena (Jemier Jenkins) that her boyfriend has been running around with Rena’s sister instead of being at home with their young son. Youngblood has been trying to build a new life for himself and his family but when confronted by Rena about running around (which he used to do) he denies the charge and makes up a lame excuse for taking their food money to pay off some debt. When Youngblood attacks Turnbo for insinuating himself into his love life, Turnbo pulls a gun on him, threatening to shoot, but boss Becker steps in between them to protect Youngblood.
Further conflict arises when Booster (Eric Reid), Becker’s son, is released from prison after doing 20 years for murdering his college girlfriend who falsely accused him of rape. When he comes to the station to reconcile with his father (who never visited him at all), Booster meets an emotional wall in Becker who refuses to listen to him. Becker blames him for the death of his mother who died of grief when he heard the judge sentence their son to death. He feels he spent his life sacrificing for his son only to have his efforts thrown away by Booster’s need for revenge. In the heated argument between them, Becker disowns Booster.
When news arrives that the city is condemning the building where the station is housed, the drivers unite to fight the eviction. Subsequently, Youngblood explains his strange behavior to Rena. He’d been saving up to buy them a house that her sister had been helping him with. After Rena scolds him for not sharing such a life-changing event with her and admits he’s changed, the lovers reconcile.
An unexpected turn of events occurs when Becker is killed in an industrial accident at the steel mill where he was trying to get a friend’s son a job. Booster breaks down in despair on hearing of his father’s death, but at the end of the play shows his readiness to take his father’s place as the head of the Jitney station by the simple gesture of picking up the phone when no one else will.
Director Callender thinks of Wilson as the Shakespeare of our time and I tend to agree. The intense realism of Wilson’s characters in which are captured the rhythms of their speech as well as the subtlety of their varied emotions jumps across the stage and reaches into the ears and hearts of the audience who remained at this particular production riveted on the edge of their seats. Kudos to the seamless acting ensemble whose excellent timing brings out the humor and rich emotional depth of Wilson’s writing and to the production team that includes Set Designer Kevin August Landesman, Costume Designer Nikki Anderson-Joy, and Sound Designer True Siller whose artistic efforts added greatly to the re-creation of the 1970’s era.
A recent review in The Wall Street Journal shrewdly observed that the characters in Jitney and Fences wrestle with “ruthlessness and rebellion,” and who, despite the scars the outside world has left them with, make decisions that determine their own fates.
Rumor has it that AASC will be producing another of Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle plays in their next season.
Something to look forward to!! Next up at AASC: The Winter’s Tale June 9-18th at Taube Atrium Theatre, 401 Van Ness Avenue, SF 94102. Tickets: (800) 838-3006) or TheWintersTale.BrownPaperTickets.com.
For more about African American Shakespeare Company, go to African-AmericanShakesorg.
Linda Ayres-Frederick April 24, 2017