When “Jitney” had its world premiere at the Allegheny Repertory Theatre in October 1982, it was a revision of a script August Wilson first wrote in 1979. “Jitney” was a peek into the world of Pittsburgh’s Hill District, circa 1977, yet the play was a microcosm of what was happening in Black communities across the company as dreams collided with reality, and an occasional aspiration emerged to see the light of day.
JOSHUA ELIJAH REESE and GENNA STYLE
“Jitney” was produced in New York for the first time in spring 2000, winning rave reviews and accolades from the New York Drama Critics Circle as Best Play of the Year.
Twenty-eight years later, a production echoes that early version with a similar backdrop and casting; again staged in Pittsburgh, again with the same actor who created the role of its central character, Jim Becker.
“When I played Becker in 1982, I had to wear white makeup in my hair and pretend like I had bad knees,” says Sala Udin. “Today, no makeup, no pretend. The wear and tear of experience on the front lines of struggle gives me a perspective on all the ‘Jitney’ relationships that I could not have grasped 28 years ago.”
The Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company continues its mission of presenting Wilson’s Pittsburgh’s cycle in the order in which they appeared on Broadway with the seventh, “Jitney.” From the moment you see the set (kudos to set designer and director Mark Clayton Southers) you know that this production will be memorable.
“Jitney” is set in a Hill District storefront jitney station. Becker collects dues and sets rates and rules (posted for all to see by the front door). Fielding (Lonzo Green), Turnbo (Les Howard) and Doub (Wali Jamal) are old hands. Youngblood (Joshua Elijah Reese) is a Vietnam vet with goals. Kevin Brown plays Shealy, a numerical merchant (i.e. numbers runner) who uses the jitney station as a satellite office for receiving orders.
Rena (Genna Styles) makes several appearances as the mother of Youngblood’s son, Jesse (Marcus Carl Southers, making his theatrical debut). Then there’s Booster (Jonathan Berry), Becker’s son, just released from 20 years in Western Pen (his father never visited him—ever).
Supporting players include Justine Patrick as Rena’s sister Peaches and Maurice Redwood as Philmore, a hotel doorman and regular customer.
As with all of Wilson’s work, its heart lies in the soul and flow of the relationships between characters that makes the audience feel invested in the story. They are the seasoning and flavor that makes you sit back and savor this two-and-a-half hour meal leaving no crumbs behind. Individual storylines add to the richness of this slice of life soul food while you taste the bitter and the sweetness of “Jitney” as it unfolds.
“Jitney” is also a sensory experience thanks to the costuming and makeup of Cheryl El Walker (I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen triple knit polyester and sky-blue eye shadow worn with dignity and style), the soundtrack that will have you bouncing and singing along between scenes and the authentic hooptie (is that a 1974 Maverick?).
“I prepare for the show by reflecting on the many wonderful meetings that August, Rob and I shared in Pan Fried Fish, next to the Wylie Avenue jitney station and I remember being reminded by August of the source of inspiration for this play and the honor of being told that as he wrote the play, he had me in mind to play the role of Becker,” recalled Udin.
“Twenty-eight years ago, all four of the “Poets in the Centre Avenue Tradition” were sitting in the audience—Rob Penny, Nick Flournoy, Chawlie Williams and August. Today they are all deceased,” Udin said. “This gives me a reverence for their contributions and the line Becker delivers to Booster, ‘I taught you to respect life. I taught you that all life is precious.’ Those memories, and today’s accumulated experiences, easily prepare me to go on stage and bring it.”
(August Wilson’s “Jitney” continues through May 30 with performances at 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays and 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays, Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre, Mezzanine, 542 Penn Ave., Downtown. Tickets are $22.50 in advance, $27.50 at the door, and may be purchased through ProArts at 412-394-3353.