“Jitney” was the first of the 10 plays of August Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle to be written and performed, but the last to make it to Broadway, finally arriving there just two years ago. It is that 2017 Tony Award-winning production, directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, that is now in Washington at Arena Stage.
This essential production takes us to Pittsburgh’s Hill District in 1977, where a crew of jitney drivers fatalistically work to get by amid the decline of their neighborhood and the threat of dislocation and gentrification. The flawless ensemble includes Ray Anthony Thomas as stationhouse gossip Turnbo, Keith Randolph Smith as stoic, unflappable Doub, and Anthony Chisholm as perpetually inebriated Fielding.
This production should be at the top of any D.C. theatergoer’s list.
While these older men approach their lives with some level of resignation, Amari Cheatom’s Darnell — called “Youngblood” by his fellow drivers — is in his mid-twenties and trying to find his path forward after a stint in Vietnam. His conflict with Turnbo, who carries bubbling anger beneath his chatterbox veneer, brings a sense of urgency to the proceedings.
The main drama of “Jitney,” however, surrounds station chief Jim Becker, a cautious and considerate man whose main fault is that he can be too forgiving of his drivers’ failings. Steven Anthony Jones plays Becker with a quiet dignity that is only truly ruptured by the arrival of his 39-year-old son Booster, just released after two decades in prison.
Though Francois Battiste as Booster does not enter until halfway through the play, he quickly steals the stage. Booster presents himself as a post-jailhouse Zen master, radiating calm and a sense of being totally at peace with his past actions. It takes only a few words from the father who had never visited him in prison to tear through that veneer, exposing a proud (and prideful) man filled with rage, bound to a twisted sense of moral justice.
The entirety of the action takes place in Becker’s station, conceived of by set designer David Gallo as a dusty, run-down joint with cracked linoleum and furniture no one wants to spend the money to replace. Sound by Charles Coes and Darron L. West, and original music by Bill Sims, Jr. underscore the shifts in mood from lazy afternoons to moments of hot anger.
“Jitney” is a study of a few days in the lives of a collection of ordinary men, played out with a mix of humor and pathos. This production should be at the top of any D.C. theatergoer’s list. (Two other Pittsburgh Cycle plays will also be at major Washington venues this season: Ford’s Theatre is set to open “Fences,” while Arena Stage will mount “Seven Guitars” next April.)
Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes with one intermission.
“Jitney” runs through October 20, 2019, at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth Street SW in Washington. Click here for tickets and information.