Taxi Drivers

If there's a flaw in August Wilson's Jitney, it's that it bends the rule that says there are no easy resolutions in modern drama. Wilson, in his desire to present proactive plays about black solidarity, ties up too neatly the heartbreak and calamity in the lives of the cab drivers whose stories he tells here. But the eleventh-hour tidiness of this play is easily forgiven, because what comes before is so compelling, and because in its Black Theatre Troupe production the acting and staging are sublime.

Jitney is Wilson's play about the '70s in his decade-by-decade dramatic series mapping black America in the 20th century. Written in 1979 as a one-act, and rewritten and expanded several times since, Jitney is set in the office of Becker's ramshackle Pittsburgh taxi firm, where the phone rings relentlessly and the cabbies gather between rides to reveal their lives to us. We meet Nam vet Youngblood, whose wife thinks he's sleeping with her sister, thanks to gossipy Turnbo, who lives to cause trouble among his friends. We hear from Fielding, the resident drunk, and numbers man Shealy, and from Doub, the resident voice of reason. And we discover that the city plans to shutter the jitney shop in a couple of weeks, on the very day that Becker's boy Booster is due to return home from prison, where he's spent the past 20 years for murdering his white girlfriend.

Like many Wilson plays, Jitney appears to be about one thing, and turns out to be about another. From the jumble of plot lines, the story of Becker and his wayward son emerges as the central drama; the generational battle between father and son culminates in a showdown that heats up Act Two. In the meantime, much of the play rides on the bigger-than-life personalities of the drivers, whose melodious dialogue makes demolition, death and incarceration seem cozy.

Kwane Vedrene gives a powerful, quietly convincing performance as Youngblood, and Mike Traylor is feisty as ever, pulling humor from strong situations and making the most of every dramatic moment he's handed. André Lee Ellis infuses Doub with an anxious elegance, and his speech about "that white-folks-is-against-me attitude," during which he details his time clearing battlefields in the Korean War, is among this production's best sections.

As written, Booster is a little too suave for someone who's been in prison since he was a teen. Yet Josh Thompson gives him an edge that burnishes Booster's bright charm, particularly in an important scene in which he confronts his father about his shortcomings. Ronn Jerard is exceptional as Becker, the nerdy minister and jitney shop owner whose son is a murderer. His performance builds from a handful of inconsequential scenes to a powerhouse performance that, in its final moments, stunned the audience into silence.

Charles St. Clair's direction is tightly paced and allows each character to develop in surprising ways. The final scenes, which should be played quickly, tend to meander, but elsewhere St. Clair keeps the endless comings and goings of his large cast flowing, and gives each actor the chance to shine. And the only thing missing from Thom Gilseth's wonderful stationary set is a curbside cab; I passed all of intermission marveling at Gilseth's attention to detail, down to grungy power boxes and the cracked vinyl of an old sofa.

Ultimately, Jitney suffers from too many rewrites: The ending, in which Booster rises like a phoenix from his former bad behavior, feels forced and tacked on, and the resolution between Youngblood and his girlfriend is too tidy and takes us nowhere. Even nasty Turnbo agrees to go corporate with his fellow jitney drivers. But the acting trumped every flaw in Wilson's otherwise wonderful script and, at the end, the audience greeted Jitney's stunned cast with a standing ovation a well-deserved response to a remarkable evening of theater.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela