From Jitney
From Jitney
It's a simple gesture, but the audience--as one--gasps. A man answers a wall telephone, causing five other men sitting around him to look up in relief and wonder. Lights on stage start to fade until the man, having spoken the words "car service" into the phone, is the last figure illuminated, and then blackout.

That the audience--again as one--rises instantly wouldn't seem to mean much in these sensation-hungry times. After all, standing ovations have become a dime a dozen. And yet, there is in the air a feeling that an uncommon theatrical moment has just taken place, a sense of longed-for communal healing so authentic that few, if any, in the auditorium haven't been affected by it.

The play is August Wilson's Jitney, which can't by any stretch of the imagination be called ground-breaking. It takes place--like so many of the two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning author's plays--in Pittsburgh's Hill District, where the lower-class black population is trying to make a go of it. (In their travails, they are, of course, meant to be a microcosm representing a macrocosm.) Jim Becker, a man in late middle age who exhales decency, runs a gypsy cab outfit where he spends as much time keeping his energized, exercised crew from tangling with each other as he does watching them pick up two- and three-dollar trips.

Though "Becker's Rules" are displayed on the wall--and feature requests to keep the place clean, to be courteous, and to not drink--they aren't always honored. Among the men disregarding the admonitions, after paying Becker what appears to be a loose form of medallion rights, are an alcoholic former tailor to Billy Eckstine, a trouble-making gossip, a short-fused fellow appropriately called Youngblood, and a Korean War vet who appears able to keep his nose clean. Joining the group during their comings-and-goings are a talkative numbers runner, a doorman with a penchant for not getting home on time to his wife, and a determined spouse, who has reason to believe her marriage to Youngblood is in jeopardy.

The only other character populating this hectic venue is Becker's son, Booster. (During the action he's called "Becker's boy" so often it seem the phrase might have served as a more meaningful title for the play.) Booster is a late arrival, and when he does cross the threshold, it's on his first day out of prison. Twenty years previously he'd been found guilty of murdering a white girlfriend who had accused him--in order to put herself right with her influential father--of trying to rape her. In getting his misguided revenge, Booster ended the promise he'd shown as a talented youth--and, as a result, hastened his mother's demise and incurred his father's unmitigated animosity. At one charged moment, the shamed dad says to son that he can't stop seeing one question on people's faces: "What kind of man would raise a boy to do something like that?"

From Jitney
From Jitney
Whether reconciliation will occur between the pair is the drama's focal issue. But Wilson--holding the Beckers' confrontations back until the action has gotten well underway--clearly intends the outcome of their dilemma to be only the most pressing among a handful of other slice-of-life concerns. Is Youngblood running around on his long-suffering and earnest wife--and if so, what will she do about it? How much damage will the meddling Turnbo do with that motor mouth of his? Will Fielding give up the bottle, or just put it up temporarily? Will the business after city officials close the obsolescent car service premises as part of a community improvement project?

Jitney is set in 1977, which makes it the '70s entry in Wilson's projected ten-decades-in-ten-plays look at 20th-century African-Americans. (Only two more, the '90s and the current decade, remain to be written.) As the couple of weeks that the drama covers pass by, the doings bring to mind predecessors as disparate as The Iceman Cometh and Taxi. Not to mention the often hilarious, often criticized (and misunderstood) Amos 'n Andy, in which Andy, if you'll remember, drove a cab. The milieu of the two dispatch offices is similar. Nothing wrong with the referencing, aside from an initial air of familiarity and perhaps the pat resolution of some of the conflicts: Youngblood and wife patch up their very complex, very real misunderstanding more handily than seems likely.

Indeed, watering hole-type plays such as Jitney ask to be judged for their vitality, and this one is as invigorated and invigorating as a WWF wrestling match. A couple of the men baiting each other over incidents like borrowed money could be defined as "gossipy", "drunk", or "foolish"--but when they express themselves, they're identifiably bamboozled and funny. Possibly the most magnetic of the local-color clique is numbers runner Shealy, who gets to tell a hilarious shaggy-dog story about why he can't land himself the right woman. But everyone of the car jocks gets yuks. One of them, exiting to pick up a caller, cracks, "You know she done joined the Jehovah Witness--when I come back, I'll be able to tell you anything you want to know about the Bible."

Incidentally, Jitney is just now reaching New York after a number of productions elsewhere. It's the extended version of Wilson's first play, a 1979 one-act of the same title. While the piece is typical of Wilson's treatises on how dignity among African-Americans is stalked against daunting odds, it's leaner than most of the playwright's subsequent works. Shealy's first-act speech, for instance, isn't followed by others; in another Wilson opus, his volubility would have been contagious. That is to say, though Wilson's works often feel as if necessary editing has been postponed or neglected, Jitney doesn't.

The cast is so polished it looks ready for one of those best-ensemble awards bestowed this time of year. Paul Butler as the elder Becker is a big man who uses his height and weight to demonstrate what a tired man's flagging gravitas looks like. Carl Lumbly, whom television audiences may not have seen much since
From Jitney
From Jitney
Cagney and Lacey went off the air, brings a different kind of weight to stage: the heavy heart of a man hoping to reclaim a wasted life, and the anguished soul of a man fearful he can never find redemption. As the husband and wife working at cross purposes, Russell Hornsby and Michole Briana White--both with concern deep in their eyes--evoke the tribulations of a marriage at cross-purposes.

Willis Burks II, as Shealy, dances merrily along the line between character and caricature without ever toppling over on the wrong side. (Evidently Burks, an actor who must know how to beef up a part, was handed his attention-grabbing monologue after suggesting that Wilson add something like it to the script.) Stephen McKinley Henderson as the provoking Turnbo, Anthony Chisholm as the flask-hoisting Fielding, Barry Shabaka Henley as the self-effacing Doub and Leo V. Finnie III as the flighty Philmore give ping to every line in which they boast, cajole, kid and/or dissemble.

When a group of actors mesh so seamlessly, the director has to be looked to, and Marion McClintock has been masterful with his players. The various ways in which he sees to it that they answer the forever-ringing phone especially earns him high marks. But he's ingenious from start to finish. For some of his subtler accomplishments, he has David Gallo's amazing set to thank. Most of the exchanges take place in the car-service interior--with its scarred linoleum floor and battered sea-green couch and picture window--but Gallo has removed a large chunk of storefront wall to give a wider view of the sloping Hill District sidewalk. At the curb are parked several rusted jalopies, and behind them is a shabby streetscape with its derelict buildings and looming Pittsburgh bridges. Very clever of McClintock and Gallo to arrange it so the audience can see the hard-working drivers leave to pick up fares, return jauntily or dejectedly, duck next door for coffee, greet each other, or simply scuff along when they think no one is watching.

Just before the lights go up on Jitney, The Persuasions are heard singing Richard Reicheg's "Looking for an Echo", which features the words "looking for a place to be in harmony, a place we almost found." Needless to say, the a cappella group is a metaphor for the play's wish, and the sentiment they intone is the play's message. It's Wilson's ability to hear--and cause to be heard--the harmony in such disharmony that ultimately brings the grateful audience to its feet. More power to him.