The Black Rep's Jitney Takes Us Where We Need to Go

A review of August Wilson's play set in a late-1970s Pittsburgh taxi station

click to enlarge Rena (Alex Jay) and Youngblood (Olajuwon Davis) in Jitney at The Black Rep. - PHILLIP HAMER
PHILLIP HAMER
Rena (Alex Jay) and Youngblood (Olajuwon Davis) in Jitney at The Black Rep.

In a timeworn taxi station, its walls trimmed parakeet green, two men argue over a game of checkers. A rotary telephone hangs on the left wall; to the right of the door hangs a blackboard with a list of drivers’ names. Milk crates serve as tables or stools, and next to a poster of Muhammad Ali appears a placard of “Becker’s Rules”: “1. No overcharging; 2. Keep car clean; 3. No drinking; 4. Be courteous; 5. Replace and clean tools.”

Set in late-1970s Pittsburgh, Jitney is the latest production from the Black Rep, both directed by and featuring founder Ron Himes. Written in 1977 by August Wilson — perhaps best known for Fences and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, both made into Oscar-winning films in the last few years — Jitney is the first play of the late playwright’s Pittsburgh Cycle, a collection of 10 plays that span the 20th century to document Black life. Jitney takes place within a series of days preceding the impending demolition of a gypsy cab station in the Hill District, an African American neighborhood to which, inferably, official taxis will not travel.

Staged entirely within the station operated by Jim Becker (played by Kevin Brown), a 60-something widower, Jitney chronicles the trials and tribulations of a cross-generational staff of Black men: Turnbo (Himes), an elder busybody with a bellicose edge; Fielding (J. Samuel Davis), a former tailor turned droll dipsomaniac; Doub (Edward Hill), a middle-aged do-gooder and Korean war vet; and Youngblood (Olajuwon Davis), a reformed 20-something saving to buy a house. Though they all share the need to make a modest living, it soon becomes clear that internal rivalries, clashing work ethics and competing life philosophies divide the motley crew. “He has no sense” is often jeered as soon as another exits the station. “I’m just talking what I know” is a mantra for Turnbo, who clearly knows much less than he assumes.

At its heart, Jitney is a play about the power of “talk” to unite a community of men who are not encouraged, nor wholly prepared, to candidly express their hopes and fears with each other, whose facades of invulnerability are often at the expense of real intimacy beyond shooting the shit. But at the same time, there is real meaning to such daily banter, and Wilson both exposes and dignifies the colorful jabs and jests between those whose “say” has been long surveilled and undervalued.

In this way, Jitney can also be read as a play about the fragility and survival of the male ego; and the ensemble pulls its weight in reflecting the complexity of doing so. “I don’t know if you knew it, Pop, but you were a big man. Everywhere you went people treated you like a big man,” says Clarence “Booster” Becker (Phillip Dixon) upon being released from prison, paying a visit to his father who has not visited him in 20 years. Kevin Brown’s performance as Becker is masterful, as he duly represents the man’s struggle to maintain his integrity after Booster’s incarceration and his ongoing ambivalence about how best to save his business.

Also impressive is Alex Jay, who plays Rena, Youngblood’s love interest and the mother of his young son. Jay makes the most of the lone female character that at times feels underwritten. It’s fair to say that, in this play, Wilson is much more invested in plumbing the depths of masculine identity and insecurity, and the comedic misogyny throughout the script hasn’t aged too well. Jitney is a play that can be as uncomfortable as it is cogent; hearing the N-word within a largely white audience may itself unsettle, though it arguably reflects honestly how some of these characters would have addressed each other.

There are no white characters in Jitney, but the specter of white supremacy lurks in the background of the plot and dialogue. Why is Youngblood having such a hard time securing a loan for his mortgage? Because the “white folks … keep pulling the rug out” from under him. Why is the cab company getting boarded up? Because the government has ostensive plans to “build houses” — plans that haven’t come to fruition in the neighborhood for years.

Harlan D. Penn’s scenic design suggests that the station is a refuge of sort for the disenfranchised: Posters of Black Steelers stars paper the light-green walls, and the large window to the outside world is smeared with soot. Nina Simone’s take on “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today” reverberates after one of the most devastating twists in the play, one of the many compelling choices made by sound designer Justin Schmitz.

Whether calling a cab or steering one, the men of Hill District are driven to despair by misfortune as much as poor decision making. Shealy (Robert E. Mitchell) hogs the phone to indulge his betting habit; Philmore (Richard Harris) hasn’t missed a day of work as a bellman in six years but squanders much of his earnings.

Wilson was clearly not invested in suggesting that individual choice makes no difference, but rather in revealing how the choices available to working-class Black men in rustbelt America were limited, to say the least.

For the audience of St. Louis — a city whose Black population has been arguably even more debilitated by not only racism but the decline in industry and manufacturing (not to mention ravaged by the War on Drugs, not yet in full swing by the time this play was penned) — Wilson’s play serves as a timely, if haunting, reminder of structural racism’s incalculable damage.

It may, at times, be a bumpy ride, but Jitney takes us places we all need to go.

Jitney runs through this weekend at the Black Rep. Shows are Wednesday, May 25, at 10 a.m. and 7 p..m.; Thursday, May 26, at 7 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, May 27 and 28 ,at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, May 29, at 3 p.m. Tickets are $45 to $50.

About The Author

Eileen G'Sell

Eileen G'Sell is a poet and critic with regular contributions to Hyperallergic, VICE, Salon, and the Los Angeles Review of Books, among other publications. In 2019 she was nominated for the Rabkin prize in arts journalism. She teaches at Washington University in St. Louis.
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