'Jitney' Shows We're Black Like Them
It's not exactly playing the race card to state an obvious fact about Orange County demographics: There ain't a whole lot of black folks in these parts. Fewer than three out of every 100 people, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, which makes us one of the few major metropolitan areas in the United States with an African-American community of less than 10 percent of the total population—which makes our numbers even more pathetic. And there are few places where that embarrassing fact is more apparent than on our local stages.
Exhibit A: One small theater, unable to find an African-American with ample acting chops, has cast a white woman to play Othello, the Moor of Venice, this summer.
Exhibit B: the plays of August Wilson, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and a towering figure in late-20th-century American drama. Wilson's plays would seem like catnip for smaller theaters: his sets are usually one locale; his characters are meaty and vigorous; and his dialogue-driven work is far more about character than dramaturgical bells and whistles.
But they also require black actors, since each of his 10 plays chronicles the African-American experience over a different decade of the 20th century. Most are set in the Hill District in Pittsburgh, the heavily black, working-class neighborhood Wilson grew up in. I suppose one could cast Wilson's plays color-blind, but good luck on that. Fortunately, South Coast Repertory has enough cash in its vaults to lure African-American actors from Los Angeles and beyond. Jitney, receiving a remarkably fresh and invigorating production, is the second Wilson play mounted at SCR in two years, and the third in its nearly 50-year history.
Set in a jitney, or an independent cab station, the play, as with most of Wilson's works, doesn't have a seat-gripping plot. And since it's set in 1977, there's not the palpable sense of second-class-citizen frustration felt among his characters that percolates earlier plays in his Century Cycle. The common enemy felt by the drivers in this station isn't racism, covert or overt. It's the city of Pittsburgh, which wants to raze the jitney station and surrounding properties in order to build a housing development. The drivers could find another place to work out of, but this isn't 1-800-4MY-TAXI. It has served the neighborhood for 20 years, the drivers know the people's personalities and quirks well, and they're not going down without a fight.
Becker (Charlie Robinson, whom you might recognize as court clerk Mac  on the TV show Night Court), the outfit's proprietor, already has enough on his mind, with the threat to his business and serving as father figure to the colorful people who work for him. There's Fielding (David McKnight), an inveterate drunk who once designed suits for jazz greats such as Count Basie. Turnbo (Ellis E. Williams) is a trouble-making, gun-toting gossip always trying to get into people's business. Youngblood (Larry Bates) is a brash younger man dreaming of buying his first home. Shealy (Rolando Boyce) is a flashy hustler more concerned with running numbers out of the station's pay phone than running people around town. And then there's Doub (James A. Watson, Jr), Becker's right-hand man, the more stoic voice of reason among the chaotic crew.
The arrival of Becker's son, Booster (Montae Russell), near the end of the first act, adds yet another headache. He has been imprisoned for 20 years for the shooting death of a woman. A science prodigy, Booster was supposed to live the life that Becker, who worked in a steel mill most of his life, could never hope to attain. But his youthful mistake and the stress that it placed on Becker's wife was too much for Becker, who never visited his son in jail. So, as most of the characters wrestle with what will happen in the future should the jitney station close, Becker is forced to wrestle with the flesh-and-blood skeleton that has stepped out of his memory and into the now.
The genius in Wilson's writing is the sense of salt-of-the-earth poetry that infuses his characters. The rhythm of the language is as important in revealing character as the actual words. Since Jitney was the first play written in what would eventually become known as Wilson's Century Cycle, there's an even more pronounced sense of heightened language. (Wilson wrote it in 1979, when he considered himself more a poet than a playwright.) Director Ron OJ Parson knows how important Wilson's rhythms are, and he skillfully steers this production and impeccable cast in that direction, with the only bump being the long blackouts between scenes that impede that rhythm.
As with Wilson's Fences, which SCR produced two seasons ago, an offstage death is the play's climax. Coming as such a surprise, the death would seem contrived or gimmicky in lesser hands. But not for Wilson. If there's a through-line in his plays other than the obvious attempt at chronicling the experience of an entire race, it's that shit happens. Big shit and little shit. Usually it happens when we least expect it. And when it does, all we can hope is that we have the strength and conviction to carry on.
This review appeared in print as "Black Like Them: South Coast Rep's staging of Jitney reminds us why we need more African-Americans in OC."
 Charlie Robinson played court clerk Mac, not the baliff. Corrected June 7, 2012.
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