August Wilson’s Jitney, in its Cincinnati premiere at the new Madisonville Arts Center (MAC), is where the late playwright’s “Century Cycle” truly began. The set of 10 plays portraying African-American life in each decade of the 20th century grew from a one-act version of Jitney in 1979.
Wilson had been a poet, but a theater performance showed him how he could bring people to life onstage and give voice to the black experi ence. Jitney was presented in the mid-1980s, but it languished for another decade while Wilson succeeded with other scripts. His early play, set in 1977, he decided, could be expanded and re-worked to represent the 1970s.
Jitney still feels like a less developed work than other scripts by Wilson, who died in 2005, but its New York debut in 1997 still received several awards. Jitney represents the promise of great things, a fine beginning.
Accordingly, it’s a fine work to inaugurate the new theater space at the MAC (5021 Whetsel Ave., Madisonville), where Queen City Off Broadway has landed after several years of performing downtown and in Northside. Wilson’s nascent ambition shines through his script and his characters, men both trapped by life and reveling in its texture as they work for a gypsy “car service,” a freelance taxi company, in Pittsburgh — where “jitney” is a colloquialism for an independent cab. When Wilson brought his play back to life in 1999, he observed, “I was initially intrigued by the idea of creating something from nothing. These are men who, not having the opportunities for jobs, created jobs. It’s about the ability of black people in America to find a ways and means to survive and prosper.”
Jitney’s story revolves around Becker (Darryl Hilton), who has managed the jitney stand for 18 years in a decrepit building in Pittsburgh’s Hill District. The ramshackle office’s pay phone fields calls for transportation to and from neighbor hoods that authorized cab companies will not serve. But Becker’s business is threatened by urban renewal — the same threat imminent in Wilson’s Radio Golf, a tale from 1997 presented earlier this year by Ensemble Theatre — and at a more personal level by the release of his son Booster (Lonell Childred) after 20 years in prison for murdering a woman.
The cusp of change threatens each man. Doub (Ray Boston), a veteran of the Korean War, is a gentle philosophizer with horrifying memories of combat. Young Darnell Youngblood (Kent Claiborne), a Vietnam War veteran, hopes to establish himself and buy a house for his girlfriend Rena (Susan Baba) and their son. Fielding (notidentified in the program) was once a respected tailor; now he exists in an alcoholic haze. Turnbo (Reggie Willis) is a cocky loudmouth, an argumentative older man who lives to mess with other people, all the while denying that that’s what he’s doing. Shealy (Heru Lasana), an itinerant numbers runner who jives in and out of the jitney stand to use the phone and offer his insights about life and the neighborhood, completes the crew.
Director Lyle Benjamin (who also handles a minor role and runs lights for the production) keeps his ensemble real, although their acting skills are varied. Hilton is too young to play Becker, but with a gravelly voice, he is con vincing enough. Childred is too refined for a man who has spent 20 years in prison for a violent murder he remains unapologetic for. Their clash lacks the dramatic snap required to fuel this show’s engine.
But the encounters between other characters are very satisfying. Willis, a veteran local actor, strikes sparks with Turnbo, especially when he clashes with Claiborne’s Youngblood. Fielding is a sensitive character, but like Lasana’s Shealy, more a portrait than a dynamic factor in this production.
Benjamin intends to offer more of Wilson’s plays via Queen City Off Broadway and the MAC. That’s good news, because those works have special resonance for Greater Cincinnati, addressing issues of race and economy that have affected our population. Benjamin has a confident touch with recreating the social intercourse that drives Wilson’s work, and he seems to be able to find actors to do the work — although the level of experience and talent can be distracting.
In addition to Jitney’s debut locally, a few words of praise must be offered up for the MAC. One of its founders, Dan Dermody, handled Jitney’s scenic design, and the rundown storefront (through a grimy window above a staircase to the basement we see a broken-down car) represents the promise of what this nicely designed, second-floor space can achieve.
With 170 tiered seats (good sightlines from all perspectives), comfortable air conditioning and a spacious performing area, the MAC is a fine addition to Cincinnati’s theater scene, not to mention a catalyst for better things in Madisonville.
All around, Jitney offers transportation to a fine neighborhood and the prospect that there’s more where this came from.
JITNEY, presented by Queen City Off Broadway, continues through June 29 at the Madisonville Arts Center.