Produced by the African Continuum Theatre in association with Ford’s Theatre
Reviewed by Rosalind Lacy
Frederick Strother as Becker (Photo: T. Charles Erickson)
Jennifer L. Nelson, who is stepping aside as artistic director of the African Continuum Theatre Company to dedicate herself to directing, elicits spell-binding performances for this double first: Jitney was the first of August Wilson’s ten-play cycle about the African-American experience in the 20th century to be professionally produced, and it’s the first staging of any his plays for Ford’s Theatre.
The ensemble captures the diversity in Wilson’s rhythmic dialogue so well that the play works like a jazz symphony. This production makes a rocky road a smooth journey through a father-son struggle for dignity in the 1970’s.
The play is placed in Pittsburgh’s mean streets Hill District. The multi-layered set, designed by Tony Cisek, is stunning. Seen through large picture windows, of a sooty-brick building, are sleek, tail-finned cars, painted at the curb of a fragmented cityscape where neighborhoods face demolition. It’s run-down Pittsburgh, recovering from its steel mill decline. The scene represents broken-stoned Pittsburgh regenerating itself, the way the characters do.
Becker (Frederick Strother) is a great man in his community who’s made a lot out of nothing. He runs his own business, a gypsy cab company, or jitney, works a second job in Pittsburgh’s steel mills, is a leader in his church and owns his own home. But he has been threatened by the city’s new rules on urban renewal. He still has to play the game by the white man’s rules, echoing a sentiment often voiced in Wilson’s plays. “Seems like by the time you get something going….they change the rules on you.”
Even though he was proud of his jitney station, Becker had invested his hopes for an even better life in his upwardly mobile son, Clarence “Booster” (Craig Wallace), a scholarship college student. Booster, however, didn’t go along with his dad’s ways: “He didn’t get out of life what he put in.” Instead, Booster made equal rights his personal fight for manhood with a gun. Ultimately, Booster lost. Sentenced to die, after a trial which broke his mother’s heart and contributed to her early death, Booster did time for twenty years.
As the play opens with his release from prison, Booster, played with controlled rage by Wallace, is a hardened thirty-nine-year old, so embittered by racism, he turned down parole five years before. Evidently, Booster preferred the penitentiary to the prison of the white world.
Wallace’s portrayal of this man who wrong-headedly thinks of himself as a “warrior” comes across as a sympathetic human being, who has paid for his mistake with the loss of his youth. Suffering has led Booster to find enough psychological balance so that he’s able to reach for some form of redemption. But will Booster reconcile with the father he adored, who gave him everything he threw away?
In the scene of angst between Becker and Booster, one generation confronts another—the father endures humiliation to protect the family; the son gives vent to his anger through a violent act, without thinking of consequences. Is the father, locked in rigid morality, to blame? Or will Becker’s morality renew Booster’s life? Memorable performances come from both Strother as Becker and Wallace as Booster, whose characters both have tragic flaws in facing racism.
Strother makes Becker robust and statuesque, the self-disciplined man, who has defied the white world by building his own. His self-made rules, like “No drinking” or “Keep a clean car” give him dignity. But,like jazz improvisation, the unexpected can always be expected in Wilson’s characters. Becker emerges from bitter stoicism to face the realization that he’s raised a son, who not only survived 20 years in prison but has grown into a new man.
Becker and Booster’s confrontation plays out against the background of the jitney cab company. Becker’s drivers are a mix of defeated stoics and dreamers, who lighten a tragic story with humorous touches. Whenever accused of meddling in other people’s business, jitney driver Turnbo, played with jaunty charm by Doug Brown, repeats the refrain: “I just talk what I know.” Or “I’m just trying to live and let live.” Turnbo is the sermonizer, who acts like a chorus, reminding other characters: “That boy had no right to kill nobody.” Doub, the Korean War veteran, (Cleo Reginald Pizana) is a surviving warrior, who endured racism in the army, but is not defeated by discrimination in the industrial north. Vietnam vet Youngblood (KenYatta Rogers) represents the new generation which demands respect through hard work, talking big and even sympathizing with Booster’s violent act. But his girlfriend Rena (Jessica Frances Dukes), the devoted mother of his two-year old son, feels left out and isolated, because in his struggle for independence, Youngblood has no time for her.
David Emerson Toney as Fielding, the jitney driver who once tailored suits for Billy Eckstine and Count Basie, has a stunning moment as the downtrodden alcoholic, who dreams of climbing a golden staircase to heaven. Shealy (Michael Anthony Williams) runs the numbers game. And Philmore (Addison Switzer) is the doorman, who drinks, gambles and cheats on his wife.
Even though I have seen this play before — in the 1996 revival at the Pittsburgh Public Theatre, I missed lines because of the dialect. If this happens to you, be patient. Because of Wilson’s repeating phrases that work like poetry or jazz riffs, speech patterns become clear.
Costumes by Reggie Ray are spot on for the seventies. Near the end of the play, Youngblood’s upbeat entrance in a bright green shirt seems to say Youngblood will make it. But will the business go on? Lighting designer Dan Covey works in sync to reinforce the answer. Lights dim as Becker’s hopes fade for holding out against the city’s condemnations. The business meeting with his drivers is held in dim light. But in yet another peak point, Booster climbs a lighted, diagonal, cement staircase, as if he’s climbing into the future.
There’s just so much all embracing humanity told without messy violence on stage in Wilson’s plays. And this production effortlessly will wrap its way around you. By the end of Jitney, we sense that Becker’s morality made Booster what he is. But we wonder about the victim’s family. And we wonder if Booster will be able to carry on his father’s legacy. As for the questions raised about who’s right or wrong? At the end of the ride, Wilson leaves us to dream up the answers.
(Run-time: 2 hours 30 minutes) Jitney continues until Sunday, Feb. 18th at Ford’s Theatre, 511 Tenth Street, N.W., Washington D.C. 2004. Performances: Tuesday–Sunday, 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, Sunday matinees, 2:30 p.m.; Tickets: $10-$52. For more information, call box office: 202-347-4833 or in person, group sales at 202-638-2367. Ticketmaster: 1-800-551-7328 (SEAT); 202-397-7328; or visit www.fordstheatre.org.