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Jitney
by August Wilson
Directed by Ron Himes
The Black Rep
May 13, 2022

Kevin Brown, Phillip Dixon
Photo: The Black Rep

August Wilson is one of the great American playwrights of the 20th and early 21st Centuries.  His Pittsburgh Cycle (also called the “Century Cycle”) is a celebrated series of works, mostly centering on Pittsburgh’s Hill District, with each play set in a different decade of the 20th Century and focusing on the life experiences of various characters in this historically Black neighborhood. The Black Rep here in St. Louis has been duly lauded for its well-regarded productions of Wilson’s plays, with its latest production, Jitney, continuing this tradition of excellence.

Taking place in the 1970s, Jitney is named for its setting–a “Jitney” or unlicensed cab station, which were popular because the “official” cabs often refused to serve the neighborhood– in an area of the Hill District that’s being rapidly redeveloped. A variety of well-drawn characters inhabit the space–mostly drivers and occasional customers and relatives. It’s a time when a lot of change is in the air, and much of it is driven by outside interests that are more interested in making money than retaining the character of the neighborhood, or caring for its Black residents. Change is also in the air for the Jitney drivers, as the youngest driver, Darnell AKA “Youngblood” (Olajuwan Davis), hopes to buy a house to better provide for his girlfriend, Rena (Alex Jay), and their young son, Jesse. Youngblood is full of hopes and dreams, but these are threatened by a misunderstanding and the gossip of resident busybody Turnbo (Ron Himes), an older driver who seems to resent Youngblood because of his youth. The station’s owner, Becker (Kevin Brown) deals with a variety of changes and challenges, as his long-estranged son, Clarence AKA “Booster” (Phillip Dixon), has recently returned to town after having spent 20 years in prison, and Becker isn’t so sure he wants to renew their relationship. There are also the pressures of running the station in the midst of the uncertainty concerning its future, as well as the pressures of managing his crew of drivers and their personal issues and conflicts–including the clashes between Turnbo and Youngblood, as well as longtime driver Fielding’s (J. Samuel Davis) ongoing issues with drinking. Fellow driver Doub (Edward L. Hill) attempts to keep the peace between his squabbling coworkers but is frequently exasperated in the process, and numbers runner Shealy (Robert A. Mitchell) is a continued source of stress for Becker as he insists on running his operation from the payphone in the station, and also asks Becker to use his influence at the local mill to get a job for a young relative.

The ups and downs of life in this small area of the country serves as a picture of the times, as well as a study of Wilson’s well-realized characters and their relationships. One of Wilson’s great strengths as a playwright is his ability with authentic, idiosyncratic dialogue and well-drawn characters that present credible “every day” situations in this specific setting while also exploring broader themes of what was happening in the wider world at the time, especially in the lives of Black Americans. Wilson’s plays are vivid and specific, as well as being both timely and timeless, and Jitney  continues this trend. At the Black Rep, Wilson’s vision is fully realized through means of excellent casting and production values, as director Himes gets the tone and pacing just right, as usual. There’s also an impressive, detailed set by Harlan D. Penn that brings the Jitney station to life, as well as excellent costumes by Jamie Bullins that reflect the characters’ personalities and the time period especially well. Joseph W. Clapper’s lighting and Justin Schmitz’s sound design also work well to establish and maintain the period, tone, and mood of the play, with lighting effects especially used well to punctuate dramatic moments in the story. 

On top of its first-rate production values, the biggest strength of the Black Rep’s Jitney is its cast. All of the players here fit ideally into their roles, led by Brown as the older and world-weary Becker and Olajuwan Davis as the young, determined Youngblood. These two anchor a cast that has no weak links, with standouts being Himes as the belligerent busybody Turnbo, J. Samuel Davis as the amiable, frequently inebriated Fielding, and Hill as the increasingly exasperated Doub. There’s also a strong turn by Richard Harris in a smaller role as frequent Jitney customer Philmore. The chemistry between Olajuwan Davis’s Youngblood and Jay’s Rena is also excellent and credible. It’s a superb cast all around, bringing life to Wilson’s excellent script and keeping the energy going in the midst of the varied pace of the story. 

The Black Rep is a company with a reputation for excellence in all its productions, but I particularly look forward to their August Wilson productions because they are always especially strong. Jitney is worth the anticipation. It’s a vivid, sometimes humorous, sometimes intense look at life for its characters at a specific time and place in history, but although it takes place in the 1970s, it has a lot to say to contemporary audiences as well. It’s a must-see performance.

Cast of Jitney
Photo: The Black Rep

The Black Rep is presenting Jitney at Washington University’s Edison Theatre until May 29, 2022

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