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'Jitney'—August Wilson's
Funky 70's Ride

by Jacqueline Trescott Contributing Theater Critic

Every so often, August Wilson invites us to sit down and get reacquainted with some folks we already know.

These are uncles, aunts, moms, pops, b'friends and girlfriends who have all skated through our lives. Sometimes they've fallen down and made a big mess. And they are not all pretty. And while we may have been avoiding them, Wilson puts a passionate stop to that. He forces us to stare them in the face.

This is not to say that the recognition of Wilson's characters makes them stale. In fact, they instead become closer. They reopen our eyes to how folks fight, get along, compromise, lose out on life. The people in his world remember the tiniest indignity and slight, as well as the bits of triumph that life sends their way. Some of them know exactly the fierce response that they will get from friends and family when they act or speak outside of expectations. But they throw away all caution, and say or do what they want anyway.

They are real; Wilson's folks are us.

When the curtain rises on "Jitney," the work from Wilson opening at Washington, D.C.'s Studio Theater May 16, we will know we have passed through that taxi depot. We can see the dust on the lamp shade. We can guess how old the copies of Jet and Ebony are on the coffee table.

And the men who open and shut the depot's old door are the ones that came out of Camden, Compton and Gary, or where ever you have called home. Everyblackman of a certain age, certain economic state, has had that slump of the shoulder, that lustful look for the girl who is not in his reach, never mind not even in the room.

Part of Wilson's cycle about African American life in the 20th Century—one examination of each decade—"Jitney" takes us back to the 1970s. The Wilson treatment of the era follows several threads. The political: urban renewal is about to tear down the block where a taxi dispatch office has also been a neighborhood gathering spot for years. The familial: the company's owner not only has to deal with the city's threat but also his internal turmoil. His son is due home after a 20-year stint in prison for murder. The societal: one of the depot regulars is a drunk, and there are questions about other people enabling him. To bring the sorrow angle home, there is music. A shower of Marvin Gaye exposes the expectations raised by some progress in the 1960s and the dashed hopes that change will bring broad advancement and genuine respect.

But these middle-aged men are part of an economy, stuck in a life that has them driving cabs, gypsy cabs, jitnies—whatever folks call them where you are. They are thinking about their own death and endings, about their livelihood being snatched away. They are already at the fringes, picking up change as they give a ride. This is not the 1970s life of a stage Al Green or a sit-com Sherman Hemsley. This is the guy down the street who has pride but hardly anything else.

Their predicament serves as a connection for today's audience. It's a reality that taxicabs wouldn't (won't?) come to most African American neighborhoods. We are also connected because the dispatch lounge, the shoeshine parlor, the rib shack are all metaphors for home.

Through Wilson's deft but at times puzzling drawing of the personalities, we learn much about these men we think we know. They are and how mighty they feel, and how low they feel. In the New York cast, Paul Butler played Becker, the depot owner, who wants some order in his life, and some certainty. What he gets is a hard time from the city and a hard time from his son, Booster, played by Carl Lumbly. Anthony Chisholm was an electric Fielding, a man living in a drunken haze who lovingly touches the cloth of his jacket. He was once a tailor, he once had a contributing life, he once shaped up Billy Eckstine, he was once somebody.

These actors delivered Wilson's vision with high octane performances. The men of "Jitney" learn that life is probably much bigger than the dispatch station but this is their place, and it has given them a place to be philosophers. Some of the action is pretty obvious to the audience. An eventual fight between Becker and his son is signaled in the first minutes. But the telling is remarkably fresh and the performances are intense.

-- April 9, 2001

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