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?"