Written in 1979 and revised in 1996, “Jitney” was the first entry in Wilson’s 10-play cycle, setting the tone and template for the plays to come. Completed just before his death in 2005, Wilson’s “Pittsburgh Cycle” is a towering theatrical achievement: no less than a chronicle of the African-American experience in 20th-century America.
Each play is set in a different decade. “Jitney” takes place in 1977, a time when painful memories of the civil rights era and Vietnam were fresh but guarded optimism and a sense of possibility had taken hold in some African-American communities.
Becker (Charlie Robinson, graced with quiet gravitas) manages a jitney service in Pittsburgh’s Hill District. It’s an illegal company that provides cabs for people without cars in a neighborhood where regular taxis won’t go.
Becker runs a tight ship; his no-nonsense rules are pinned to the wall.
But his motley crew is hard to control. Turnbo (given full-blooded life by Ellis E. Williams) is a cantankerous old busybody who isn’t afraid to whip out his gun when riled. Youngblood (Larry Bates, volatile yet likable) locks horns with Turnbo over the slightest insult. Fielding (embodied by David McKnight as a faded dandy) is a drunk with the soul of a poet. Doub (played with admirable subtlety by James A. Watson Jr.) hides intense emotions under a placid exterior.
“Jitney” has two central conflicts, both underdeveloped: Becker’s fraught relationship with his son Booster (a brooding Montae Russell), who just got out of prison; and the fate of Becker’s company, which will lose its storefront because the city plans to tear down the neighborhood. Wilson handles the spiritual and physical destruction of African-American neighborhoods and the complexity of the father-son bond better in other plays. Still, “Jitney” ’s genius is in its particularity of character and anecdote, and Parson’s staging takes full advantage of those attributes.
Supporting roles are as well-cast as the leads. Youngblood’s girlfriend, Rena (Kristy Johnson), is played as a woman forced by circumstances to be wise beyond her years. Shealy (Rolando Boyce) has the play’s funniest monologue—a lament about an old girlfriend’s curse, which causes him to see her face whenever he’s intimate with another woman.
The production values are excellent, though scenic designer Shaun Motley doesn’t show enough of the street outside Becker’s front door. Important things happen there, and it’s hard to see them because that part of the set is underlit. But that doesn’t detract from Parson’s achievement. This ensemble feels familiar with the lines and one another, and the relationships portrayed are solidly believable. That’s essential to the success of “Jitney” or any of Wilson’s plays.
Presented by and at South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa. May 18–June 10. Tue. and Wed., 7:30 p.m.; Thu.–Sat., 8 p.m.; Sat. and Sun., 2:30 p.m. (714) 708-5555 or scr.org. Casting by Joanne DeNaut.