J. Bernard Calloway and Chuck Cooper
in Jitney
(© T Charles Erickson)
J. Bernard Calloway and Chuck Cooper
in Jitney
(© T Charles Erickson)
Lord only knows how Ruben Santiago-Hudson, who is currently starring on Broadway in Stick Fly, also found the time to direct a thoroughly captivating revival of August Wilson's 1979 drama Jitney, now at the Two River Theater Company in Red Bank, New Jersey. Indeed, given the quality of this staging, don't be surprised if one of Manhattan's major not-for-profit theater companies picks up this production for its upcoming season.

Set in a gypsy cab station in Pittsburgh's Hill District in the late 1970s where the pay phone is constantly ringing, the play explores a cross-section of black taxi drivers, including the cool-headed company owner Becker (Chuck Cooper); the belligerent and talkative Turnbo (Allie Woods Jr.); the raspy-voiced, alcoholic former tailor Fielding (Anthony Chrisholm); the sincere and ambitious Vietnam War veteran Youngblood (Brandon J. Dirden); and the wise Korean War veteran Doub (James A. Williams).

Becker confronts both business and domestic challenges. The city is threatening to close the station down as part of an expansive urban renewal effort. His son Booster (J. Bernard Calloway), who has been in jail for two decades for killing his girlfriend, has finally been released and comes to pay him a visit. And Becker, who refused to visit Booster during his incarceration, tells his surprisingly mellow son that his adolescent crime directly led to the death of his grief-stricken mother.

Each member of the superb ensemble cast offers a rich portrayal and more than does justice to Wilson's almost intoxicating language, so much so that many of the two-character scenes are the equivalent of beautifully sung duets. For instance, the scenes between Dirden and Roslyn Ruff, who plays his distressed wife Rena, are immensely moving.

Cooper conveys Becker's pride in his past and his profession with warmth and dignity. Dirden is convincing as the earnest Youngblood, who attempts to buy a new home for his wife and escape the projects. The subdued Calloway is able to make Booster sympathetic in spite of his character's violent past. Woods Jr. and Chisholm also deliver a great deal of humor with their character roles.

Neil Patel's set displays the dilapidated station in great detail, with even a full-size red Chevy behind the storefront window and a three-dimensional industrial skyscape up above. Likewise, Karen Perry's alternatively handsome and shoddy costumes define each character's personality with precision.