Reviewing Theatre For Over 40 Years
August Wilson’s “Jitney” takes a fine ride in Pasadena
When discussing the work of August Wilson, it is not whether or not to like his plays, but which to like the most. His spin on the African-American experience, gained by walking through a century in the Hill District of Pittsburgh one decade at a time, has not only left an indelible historical legacy, but cemented Wilson as one of the great playwrights of the 20th Century. His characters, rich and flawed, wrap around each other like the strains of the blues – sometimes a portrait of despair, sometimes filled with an underlying ebullience, always inspiring a connection for those who take time to listen.
A personal favorite is “Jitney,” now at The Pasadena Playhouse after a run at South Coast Rep. Set in 1977 in a gypsy cab company headquarters, it offers up intricate portraits of individuals at the same time it defines the unintended consequences of well-meaning urban renewal, and the fight against the dissolving of a neighborhood. Its characters – one after another – defy expectation even as they radiate an underplayed integrity which becomes its own bond. Flawed, sometimes very funny, these men will charm even as they make you ponder.
Charlie Robinson leads the cast as the honorable, respected Becker – leader of these independent cabbies, and a man whose name garners respect as far away as the industrial plant from which he retired. Still, he wrestles with the burden of an only son whose anticipated release from prison underscores all that went wrong in his life. Robinson’s Becker balances a calm everyday exterior with a hidden intensity in a way which makes his outbursts carry a particular weight.
Joining Robinson are Ellis E. Williams, very funny and rather pitiable in turns as the gossipy Turnbo, David McKnight as the upbeat, surprisingly self-aware alcoholic Fielding, and James A Watson, Jr. using the subtlety of body movement to display solid dependability as Doub. Larry Bates gives a warmth and a passionate earnestness to the young Darnell, rising above his past despite expectations. Kristy Johnson, as the woman inspiring Darnell to be his best self creates a fine balance between the mild panic of a financially strapped young mother and an underlying tenderness.
Rolando Boyce, as the friendly bookie and Gregg Daniel as a supportive hotel doorman provide moments of great fun, and a look at the larger community. Montae Russell, as Becker’s parolee son, offers up some of the show’s greatest passion, and with Robinson inhabits the play’s most important dialogue – an argument which hinges on the nature of manliness, and the balance between pride and responsibility.
Director Ron OJ Parson, who understudied the original production of “Jitney,” has a feel for who these people are in a way which fashions this ensemble into a cohesive community. Timing is both natural and spot-on. Passions rise as passions do, taking us inside the frame in a way Wilson’s plays should. We laugh with them. We fear for them. We are among them.
Kudos also to costumer Dana Rebecca Woods, whose careful reproduction of time and place combines with an essential sense of character. Indeed, her clothes occasionally take focus just at the moment when the play itself demands instant definition of character or purpose. The polish of craft is also present in Shaun Motley’s homey if run-down taxi station: just warm enough to be friendly, and just ratty enough to legitimize the urban development which might destroy it.
“Jitney” is warm, charming, funny, direct, angry, wrenching, and as deeply satisfying a play as one will find. I felt so when it was new, and perhaps even more so now. This production allows all of that to flourish. August Wilson’s dialogue rings real and true, and says much which needs saying about nobility or fragility in adversity and the internal hope which keeps people, and a people, moving forward.
What: “Jitney” When: Through July 15, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays and 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays Where: The Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $29 – $59 Info: (626) 356-7529 or http://www.PasadenaPlayhouse.org