You might have called them gypsy cabs long ago, but in some places, they were called “jitneys” and according to Merriam-Webster a “jitney” as “an unlicensed taxicab.” In August Wilson’s “Jitney,” the place is Pittsburgh in the 1970s and in a time of Uber and Lyft, this smooth Mark Taper production is well worth the journey into the past.
Directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, this production received six Tony Award nominations, including Best Direction, Best Scenic Design (Toni-Leslie James), Best Lighting Design (Jane Cox) and won for Best Revival. While John Douglas Thompson, who was nominated for Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role (as Becker), isn’t in the Mark Taper Production, some of the Broadway cast are in this Los Angeles production: Harvy Blanks as Shealy, Anthony Chisholm as Fielding and Keith Randolph Smith as Philmore.
Taking place in the Hill District of Pittsburgh in the autumn of 1977, this “Jitney” station is run by Becker (Steven Anthony Jones), but there are others discussed (but not seen). Becker has rules: “No overcharging, keep your car clean, no drinking, and be courteous.” Yet he bends the rules for Fielding (Anthony Chisolm) who was once a much sought after tailor, but now has sunken into an alcoholic haze of hopelessness. “You don’t always have the kind of life that you dream about,” he says. Being good at a craft isn’t enough and yet the opportunities that the older drivers faced were more limited than those for the younger generation in the 1970s.
The future of the station is threatened by gentrification and supposed to be closed at the beginning of next month. Becker has other problems: The gossipy Turnbo (Ray Anthony Thomas) is picking fights with the hot-headed Vietnam vet Youngblood (Amari Cheatom) and Becker’s estranged son, Booster (François Battiste), is getting out of prison.
During the 20 years Booster was imprisoned, Becker never visited once. There’s a hard brick wall of bitterness between these two men. Booster could have pulled himself out of economic uncertainly, but ruined his future in one impetuous act.
Turnbo, on the other hand, might have eyes for Youngblood’s woman and baby mama, Rena (Nija Okoro). Youngblood is a hard worker, hoping for something better and running jitney is “tax-free” money.
Through their often hilarious musings, tales and small talk, Wilson reveals the tribulations of a black community in Pittsburgh, but this likely mirrors many communities in the US at that time.
“Jitney” is part of Wilson’s American Century Cycle that begins with “Gem of the Ocean” which is set in 1904 and ends with “Radio Golf” which is set in the 1990s. Santiago-Hudson was a friend of Wilson’s and acted in “Seven Guitars” and “Gem of the Ocean” on Broadway, earning a Tony for his performance in “Seven Guitars.” He also performed, at Wilson’s request, in Wilson’s autobiographical one-man show, “How I Learned What I Learned” (off-Broadway at the Signature Theatre).
The ensemble of this production provides nuanced performances and there’s a long-time acquaintance feel in all of the fun and friction between the jitney drivers. David Gallo’s set design features a floor with a mismatched linoleum-like surface, as if some colors came in much later and one portion totally re-done at a different time. The walls are grungy and the windows are smudged with years of layered dirt. The problems this community faces are long-term and won’t be easily remedied.
As a nation, we’ve come a long way in race relations, yet we still have problems of hailing a taxi while black, driving while black and even napping while black. Jitney was a solution then and now, different economics and high tech advances, provide a different independent cab system with Uber and Lyft. What kind of crowd ends up driving? In the case of “Jitney,” it’s the old who have no other options and the young who need extra income in a community with limited options due to race because the resources aren’t spread equally.
“Jitney” continues until December 29 at the Mark Taper Forum, The Music Center, 135 N. Grand Avenue in Downtown L.A. 90012. Tickets are $25 to $125. For more info call (213) 628-2772, visit the box office at the Ahmanson Theatre or CenterTheatreGroup.org.