August Wilson’s celebrated play, “Jitney” is a remarkably Black expression of life, love and loss in a 1970’s taxi cab station in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Now playing at the Mark Taper Forum, “Jitney” follows several men as they work day and night to maintain their beloved cab station and livelihood. The play depicts real-life struggles with finances, relationships, and gentrification of one’s neighborhood. Filled with relatable language and personas, “Jitney” is a must-see, providing comical relief even in times of sorrow.
Directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, the play stars Anthony Chisholm, Brian D. Coats, Steven Anthony Jones, Nija Okoro, Keith Randolph Smith, Harvey Blanks, Francois Battiste, James T. Alfred and Ray Anthony Thomas.
Managed by Becker (Jones) the jitney cab station houses five drivers and a few friends who utilize the space as nearly a hangout. The guys, each of which just working to get by, find the cab station to be more than a job, but a haven from the streets and a means to a new life. Youngblood (Alfred), the youngest works to raise money in hopes of moving his family into a better home, but clashes with Turnbo (Thomas) due to his inability to keep things to himself. Throughout the play, Becker and Doub (Smith) keep the others in order, however, when Becker’s son Booster (Battiste) is released from jail, a new batter and layer uncovering what it is to be a working Black man is uncovered.
News breaks that the city will be closing the station, and the guys eventually decide to fight back as a team. Although “Jitney” is full of laughs and banter, sadness overcomes when the unexpected death of one of the drivers occurs causing the guys to reflect on their relationships and commitment to the cab station.
Overall, “Jitney” follows Wilson’s theme of showing complete human form, evoking various emotions scene after scene.
“Seems like I relate to all the things that he [August Wilson] writes,” starring actor Raymond Anthony Thomas shared. “It’s about us, it’s about our stories. Any chance I get to work on an August Wilson, I will.”
Thomas, who played possibly the funniest character Turnbo, the talkative truthteller as many would call him finds himself at the center of a quarrel when he and Youngblood disagree on whether the younger gentleman is living a life of truth.
Having starred in six of the 10 plays that have gone to stage from August Wilson, Thomas says “Jitney” is one of his favorites. He’s starred in this show six times, playing a different character each run.
He along with the majority of the cast members have worked with this production for nearly seven years, Thomas says his excitement for the character and cast remains with each show. Add that the audience also plays a major role, an aspect that adds an element of surprise and attests to Wilson’s skill as a writer.
“I think the diversity of the audience is a good indication of how August Wilson appeals to a universal type of mentality about just people doing the best they can in this hard, hard life.”
“He takes our language and almost turns it into music,” Thomas said. “It’s rare that it happens and the beauty of it is he elevates it so that an ordinary story about guys driving cars becomes this sort of gothic event.”
The cast works hard to ensure the real essence of the story is exerted, as Thomas would say, “the laughs are coming in. It’s funny because it’s true.” Which is a nod to his character Turnbo, who was known as a gossiper, but only told one lie the entire play. “That’s the beauty of his [Wilson] genius, he has the ability to put people on stage from our lives that are recognizable to everybody.”
“Jitney” will be playing at the Mark Taper Forum until December 29, 2019, with showings nearly every day until close. Tickets can be purchased online at https://www.centertheatregroup.org/visit/mark-taper-forum/ or the box office.