The American Stage production of August Wilson’s Jitney is my first August Wilson experience and tickets to the production were my birthday gift to my partner this year. Both he and my father are huge August Wilson fans, however, so I heard a lot of praise before I went to the play itself, and I’m happy to say it stood up to the hype fairly well. Note: spoilers to follow.
As for the play itself: Jitney takes place in an illegal taxi cab office in 1977 Pittsburgh run by Becker, whose son Booster is about to be released from jail for murder. The drama surrounding and between the men in the office comes bubbling to the surface, including conflicts between Youngblood and Rena (the only woman on stage), Youngblood and Turnbo, Turnbo and everyone, Becker and Fielding, Becker and Booster, and everyone with women basically. It’s not a feminist play, I’m warning you. This includes arguments, a stand off with a gun, fisticuffs, and a lot of door slamming. In the end Becker’s sudden death (obvious from foreshadowing) gives Booster the chance to redeem himself, and Youngblood reconciles with Rena, bringing hope of a life outside their declining neighborhood.
There is some discussion of racial tensions in the play including the juxtaposition of two speeches: one by Becker about how the white man doesn’t care enough about you to oppress you as an individual, which is thrown into sharp relief against the fact that Booster’s white girlfriend accused him of rape when her father caught them together, so he shot her. Becker refuses to forgive Booster for throwing his life away, and Booster realizes his father is right too late to make a difference. As the play comes to a close no reconciliation has taken place between the two men, but Booster takes up the mantle of business owner, and it is implied he will try to be the same pillar of the community that his father was.
As to the play not being feminist, it’s not even pro-woman. The men in the office have a love-hate relationship with women; they chase them, often two at a time, and yet the general consensus is that women ruin men’s lives. Youngblood loves Rena, though their relationship is rocky, and Becker clearly loves his wife (and dearly loved his late wife). That aside there are long speeches about how nothing ruins a man’s life like a woman – if I’m remembering correctly one character is implied to be celibate for this reason – and Booster’s life is ruined by a woman falsely accusing him of rape. From what I hear, Wilson as a playwright only has a few strong female characters in his ten play corpus (the so-called Century Cycle) in part because he draws on his own experience and writes what he knows. As much as I would love for there to be strong women in his plays, he is examining relationships between and the lives of African American men in the US, and the play makes up for the lack of women with extraordinary focus. Just as one can’t judge Toni Morrison for her lack of male characters, one can’t go to an August Wilson play expecting balanced female characters. I can live with that.
On to the review of this specific production by American Stage.
Can I begin by saying that this set is amazing? Set design and costuming is always important to me, but this set and the costumes were so perfectly realized that I am going to stay something that I never say about plays: I was transported. There were times, in this three hour play, that I forgot that I was at a play at all, and that almost never happens to me. The entrances and exits happened through the door on stage rather than the sides, which I thought was brilliant, and people would stay in character through the hallway windows. The stage felt aged and so real, it was tremendously impressive.
Perhaps even better than the aesthetics, this production was brilliantly acted, all of the emotion, tension, and jokes felt natural and real. American Stage has assembled a tremendously talented cast. My partner felt that Rena was the weakest actor on stage, but I think her facial expressions were perfect, and it cannot have been easy to be the only woman on stage. Rena’s character is one that can easily be caricature: mistrusting girlfriend, the responsible parent, and classy girl with a (presumably) trashy sister (named Peaches). I think the actor did a lovely job with a challenging role to bring to life, and playing opposite of Youngblood cannot have been easy because he was incredible.
I tried to get this review up as soon as I could because American Stage is running Jitney through the end of February 2016 and I cannot recommend it highly enough. If I could afford it I would see it again, and if you love American literature or theater, you owe it to yourself to see it.