Washington D.C.’s Arena Stage recently kicked off its season-long celebration of playwright August Wilson with his award-winning “Jitney,” and the terrific acting is just one reason to run to see this outstanding show.
Superbly directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, the play won the 2017 Tony Award for Best Play Revival. Written by Wilson as the first play in his American Century Cycle, the show is centered in the predominantly black Hill District in Pittsburgh where Wilson was born and raised.
The storyline depicts a jitney station, a symbol of stability, in a community that is struggling against an oppressive loss of opportunities and neighborhood gentrification. Five jitney drivers, including the owner, serve as unlicensed taxi drivers, ferrying customers around in a community underserved by public transportation. Half of the businesses on the street are boarded up, and Becker, the owner of the jitney service, has just received notice that his business is next on the list to be forced out.
It is into this dire state that the play opens as Becker and the others must decide if they will resist the powerful forces that prevail or will they fight to stay. Many of the community’s residents are poor or elderly, and Becker and the others have formed personal relationships with their customers.
Several of the actors performed in the Broadway production, which won rave reviews under Hudson’s direction. The seamless teamwork the actors showed paid off here. Steven Anthony Jones masterfully plays Becker with a quiet dignity as he struggles to keep the business going to provide work for the others who are dealing with their hopes and dreams.
These include Amari Cheatom as Youngblood, a Vietnam War vet who is working several jobs to provide for his girlfriend Rena (a talented Nija Okoro) and their young son; Keith Randolph Smith as Doub, a Korean War vet who is the voice of wisdom; and Ray Anthony Thomas who is terrific as Turnbo, who gets into everybody’s business and whose acting almost brings down the house.
Anthony Chisholm is top-notch as Fielding, an alcoholic who was formally a tailor for singer Billy Eckstine, but whose drinking almost costs him his job. Harvy Blanks plays the easygoing numbers runner Shealy; and Brian D. Coats is Philmore, who has never missed a day at his job at the local hotel but has to hire a jitney when his woman throws him out.
Rounding out the cast is Francois Battiste as Booster, Becker’s brilliant but hotheaded son who has returned home after being in prison for 20 years. Both father and son once had adored each other, until Booster makes a tragic decision that will alter his life and the dreams that Becker had for him. Their relationship is now asunder. A confrontation between the two is one of the highlights of the play, as Battiste and Jones give performances that will have you on the edge of your seat.
Wilson’s richly drawn characterizations and dramatic prose bring a heightened depth to the production that will keep viewers engaged from beginning to end. We see the African American experience told by a master storyteller who had a gift for capturing the reality of what African Americans endure and hope to achieve. Along the way, you will laugh and be moved to tears.
A dynamic creative team beautifully adds to “Jitney,” and kudos go to David Gallo for the carefully detailed scenic design and the costumes by Toni-Leslie James. Arena Stage will mount Wilson’s “Seven Guitars” in April.
“Jitney” runs through Oct. 27. For tickets, visit arenastage.org.