Worth Hailing

Toward the end of Act One of Arizona Theatre Company's Jitney, Chuck Patterson positions himself near the lip of center stage and recites a monologue about a dream that Fielding, the character he plays in this August Wilson play, has recently had. His recollection of climbing a golden ladder up into the heavens begins like most of Fielding's previous speeches: slightly tipsy and laced with a gently swaggering humor. But halfway through, his recitation takes a turn and becomes a mournful, deeply moving memory yanked from his psyche and filled with his worst fears. Once he's done, Patterson's face is dripping with tears, and the audience sits stunned at his character's brief transformation.

It's not the last time this superb production, expertly helmed by Lou Bellamy and skillfully acted by an outstanding cast, takes its audience by surprise. I can't recall the last time I heard an audience gasp at something they've seen onstage, but at the matinee I attended, one of Wilson's eleventh-hour revelations elicited that response from several of those there to see it.

Jitney is one in a series of plays Wilson, who died last year, wrote to chronicle African-American life in America's 20th century. Each of the 10 plays is set in a different decade; among the more acclaimed other installments are The Piano Lesson; Ma Rainey's Black Bottom; Seven Guitars; and, more recently, Radio Golf.

Wilson's plays are more about language and the drama of life than they are about what happens to the people who appear in them, so Jitney's story unfolds slowly. It takes place entirely in the grungy office of an unlicensed cab service in Pittsburgh's Hill district, circa 1977. Becker (Brian Anthony Wilson) and his drivers run "jitneys" there, hauling low-income fares from place to place for a couple bucks per ride. Word reaches the drivers that the city's urban renewal plan will shutter Becker's shop in a matter of weeks, a horror from which Becker is distracted when he hears that his son has just been released from prison after 20 years.

Like many Wilson plays, Jitney appears to be about one thing and turns out to be about another. From the jumble of personal stories, the story of Becker and his wayward son emerges as the central drama; the generational battle between father and son culminates in the 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.

There's Fielding (Patterson), the resident tosspot, and the extravagantly creepy numbers man, Shealy (Abdul Salaam El Razzac), who's here mainly to provide punch lines and model ugly '70s pimp-wear for us. There's Doub (Bus Howard), the resident voice of reason, and Vietnam vet Youngblood (James T. Alfred), whose wife, Rena (Julia Pace Mitchell), thinks he's sleeping with her sister, thanks to busybody Turnbo (James Craven), who lives to cause trouble among his friends. And there's recent jailbird Booster (Jacinto Taras Riddick), who's done his time for murdering his white girlfriend and now wants to rebuild his relationship with his father.

They assemble to wow us with their tales of woe and comic cutups on Vicki Smith's amazingly realistic set. Crowded with the clutter of a down-on-its-heels cabby's office, the space is a symphony of perfectly dilapidated details: an overflowing trash bin, a torn vinyl sofa, a worn desk propped up on odd boxes and bricks. Of course there's a real live car, or at least part of one, parked onstage — a derelict jalopy visible through Becker's smudged windows. Across the street, Smith's dirty, run-down tenements and boarded-up storefronts are so realistic, I half expected to see a real live wino stumble out of one of them.

When I reviewed another local production of Jitney three years ago, I wrote that the play had suffered from its many rewrites. (Written in 1979 as a one-act, it's been reworked and expanded several times since.) But while I previously found Wilson's ending — in which Booster rises like a phoenix from his former bad behavior; Youngblood and his wife wind things up too cutely; and even nasty Turnbo softens, agreeing to go corporate with his fellow jitney drivers — forced and unconvincing, this time I found it dramatically satisfying and not unfair to its characters' evolution, thanks to Bellamy's cunning buildup and stylish denouement. (If I'm being vague, it's because I want you to go see this show yourself.)

My only quibble was with Riddick's stern, scowling performance as Booster, the just-released jailbird. I mentioned this to an acquaintance I ran into at intermission, and she told me I was wrong. "I've been in prison," she told me. "That's how prisoners act, even after they're out. That guy's performance is perfect."

And therefore, I suppose, so is this production.

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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