Funky 70's Ride
by Jacqueline Trescott
SeeingBlack.com 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
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
Centuryone 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, jitnieswhatever 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
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
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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