Beautiful and Moving JITNEY at Two River Theater Company

by Patrick Maley

Chuck Cooper (right) as Becker, boss of the jitney station, and J. Bernard Calloway as his estranged son Booster in August Wilson’s JITNEY at Two River Theater. (Photo by T. Charles Erickson)

If there is music to be found in the cacophony of a busy street, and art in the way the sun happens to fall through the trees, then surely poetry resides somewhere among the language we bandy about in our daily lives. The challenge is finding that poetry, and then presenting it as naturally as possible. At this, August Wilson was a genius. More than anything, Wilson was a poet of the everyday, highlighting the rhythm and cadence of the dialogue among familiars, that sort of language we speak to those with whom we are closest, having abandoned pretense and social neuroses. There is much to love and admire about Wilson’s work, but its greatness begins with his ear for language.

This foremost of Wilson’s strengths is on full display in Two River Theater Company’s beautiful and moving production of JITNEY. Set in a storefront gypsy cab stand with an ensemble of nine, JITNEY runs on the fuel of its character’s everyday, often menial, conversations as they sit around waiting for the phone to ring with a request for a car. Business is good, and the phone rings often, so the drivers shuffle in and out, forcing the conversation to adapt to whomever happens to be present. The result is an ebb and flow as uneven as our everyday speech, but as rhythmic as the language of the blues from which Wilson took so much influence. Like watching Act One, Scene One of any Shakespeare play, or like a young girl shuffling her feet in time before jumping into double-dutch ropes (the choice of analogy is yours), it takes a few minutes to catch the cadence of JITNEY’s language, but as the cast progresses undeterred with a naturalness of speech, the rhythm seems to slow as our ear adjusts, and we are quickly immersed into the living poem of 1977 Pittsburgh.

Premiering in 1982, JITNEY is a very early Wilson play, and the first of what would become his life’s work, the ten-play Century Cycle (also called The Pittsburgh Cycle, after Wilson’s hometown where he set all but MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM of the cycle’s plays). With this project, Wilson set out to write one play for every decade of the twentieth century, each of which would examine the African-American experience in that decade. Beginning with JITNEY, Wilson worked on this cycle for nearly thirty years, completing it shortly before his death with 2005’s RADIO GOLF. The cycle is a remarkable achievement, considering both the greatness of the plays and the simple fact that he finished the project (a task too great for even Eugene O’Neill). The cycle’s most notable commercial and critical successes include JOE TURNER’S COME AND GONE  (1986), THE PIANO LESSON  (1987), and of course FENCES (1985). Two River’s decision to mount JITNEY thus represents an admirable move away from the expected in favor of an under-produced, but wonderful play.

Roslyn Ruff and Brandon J. Dirden as the young lovers, Rena and Youngblood, in August Wilson’s JITNEY at Two River Theater. (Photo by T. Charles Erickson)

JITNEY’s cab stand becomes Wilson’s microcosm of the 1970’s African-American experience, where we meet the five men who drive for the car service, and several of the neighborhood’s locals. A variety of tensions flow in and out of the station—Fielding’s alcoholism, Turnbo’s intrusive gossiping, or Youngblood’s money trouble, for instance—but JITNEY’s primary drama is simply the daily struggle to get by in unforgiving social terrain.

Becker, that station’s boss, comes to embody this drama most fully. On the business end, he struggles to enforce his company rules while playing mediator to arguments and mentor to youth; in his personal life he must brace for the return of his estranged son, Booster, who has been incarcerated twenty years for murder and whom Becker has never visited in prison. On top of all that, the city has recently told him that they are boarding up the station’s entire block, and so he must figure out a solution that is best for him and his employees. Becker is weary and all-but resigned to harsh progress that threatens to leave him and those like him behind.

Veteran actor Chuck Cooper manages to embody all this weight in the weariness of his eyes, the sluggishness of his gait, and the encroaching exhaustion of his voice. In the tense reunion scene between Mr. Cooper and J. Bernard Calloway’s Booster, we see Becker struggling with all his might to erect an emotional wall, one which will protect from dangerous assaults on his psyche, and upon which he can lean for much-needed support. Booster has not seen his father since he went to prison at nineteen years old, and hopes to find a father welcoming—or at least respectful—of the man he has tried to make himself into. Becker is neither, and Mr. Calloway does well here and throughout the play to embody the conflict of a man who has convinced himself he can stand upright on his own, but who is constantly rebuffed by society.

The father-son conflict is important to JITNEY, but it remains just part of the play’s driving tension. Among the most prominent of August Wilson’s tropes is the African-American demanding respect and agency in a society hesitant to grant such things. That theme is not as pronounced here as in MA RAINEY or FENCES, but it permeates the play nonetheless. Each of JITNEY’s main characters is defined in large part by his relative need for progress, and whether it is Doub’s resignation to staying out of conflict, Shealy’s constant scheming, or Youngblood’s urge to establish himself, director Ruben Santiago-Hudson manages to underscore that which is most definitive and most moving about each character. Mr. Santiago-Hudson seems committed to the notion that JITNEY is about people rather than any one person, and the result is a social cross-section with depth and understanding.

Beautifully designed by Neil Patel and accented by Bill Sims Jr.’s wonderful original music, Two River Theater Company’s JITNEY harmonizes masterfully with Wilson’s poetry of the everyday. It offers a glimpse into the dynamic and varied African-American experience of the 1970’s, appealing not for pity, fear, or anger, but simply empathy and understanding. Under the steady hand of Mr. Santiago-Hudson, this JITNEY gives Wilson’s characters the empathy they require, and ends up as a poignant poem of everyday struggle.

by August Wilson
Directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson
January 29 – February 19, 2012
Two River Theater Company
21 Bridge Avenue
Red Bank NJ, 07701

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