Review: African-American Shakes’ powerful ‘Jitney’ showcases the brilliance of Wilson’s words

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In a fiery argument 20 years in the making, Booster (Eric Reid) confronts his father Becker (L. Peter Callender) in August Wilson’s “Jitney,” produced by the African-American Shakespeare Company. (Photo by Lance Huntley)

The tableau is powerful.

For all the talking that takes place at the jitney station in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, it is that moment of stoic calm that contrasts so perfectly with the constant cacophony of life amongst the jitney drivers.

August Wilson’s play “Jitney,” produced with magnificent splendor by San Francisco’s African-American Shakespeare Company, the first time in their 23-year history they have ventured into the Wilson canon, is a mesmerizing dazzler, a delicious slice of the joy and pain of Black life set in 1977.

At this specific moment, the men stand in stone silence processing a tragedy that has befallen them – those who are standing include the gossiper with a dark secret, the dapper, tortured alcoholic, the wise Korean War vet, and the fiery, young Vietnam vet. After spending the previous two hours on stage experiencing a plethora of human triumph and tragedy, here they are left with no words, while the voice of a goddess Mahalia Jackson pierces the space with the sublimely beautiful “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.”

What the production, directed with brilliance by the company’s founder and artistic director L. Peter Callender, gets right is the ambience and camaraderie of these varied lives set against the backdrop of the threat of gentrification. Surely there are other places to work. But there is something special about working for Becker (Callender).

Take his interaction with Fielding (an empathetic and warm turn by Trevor Nigel Lawrence). Becker has only five rules, one being “No Drinking.” After another of Fielding’s bouts with alcohol sends Becker into a fit, Fielding begs, pleads to keep his job. Surely, he needs the job. But probably more importantly, Fielding needs a world where Becker stays in his life.

That is the power of Becker. Played by Callender with a deeply warm yet conflicted heart, he is more than a boss. He is quick to dish advice to Youngblood (an effective Edward Neville Ewell) about the obligations of a man, and wastes no time getting in the middle of a violent storm involving Youngblood and Turnbo (ShawnJ West, in a gem of a variety-filled performance).

A personal favorite was the portrayal of the pragmatist Doub, played by the golden-throated Jonathan Smothers. While he may be a bit young for the role, his strength is in how he grounds the station, a man with a large presence who gives a heaping of professionalism to a place where Turnbo looks at Playboys out in the open while declaring, “If she ain’t in Heaven when I get there, send me to Hell.” He is a man who is there to punch his timecard, work hard, and share his wisdom. It’s not outside the realm of possibility that he is being groomed to run the station at some point.

The production initially takes a few moments to grasp its style. Renowned theatre director William Ball referred to this phenomenon as the “first ten minutes.” The dialogue and the style of the play does not flow naturally at the onset. What helps ground the play early on is a great soundscape designed by True Miller, with succulent soul from the likes of singers such as Donny Hathaway and Marvin Gaye.

As the production finds its flow, with colorful characters coming in looking for rides, people such as super 1970’s Huggy Bear-like badass and numbers runner Shealy (a colorful Fred Pitts) and loyal local employee Philmore (Gift Harris, providing a turn with nice levity), there are some effective subplots such as Youngblood’s quest to grow up and provide for his young family.

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(L to R) Fielding (Trevor Nigel Lawrence) shares a laugh with Turnbo (ShawnJ West) and Doub (Jonathan Smothers) in between fares. (Photo by Lance Huntley)

This seems to conflict with what his girlfriend thinks is actually happening. As the only female character in the play, the lovely Rena (a regal Jemier Jenkins) challenges Youngblood to alter his way of thinking, and pointing out what is most important when making life-altering decisions that will affect her and their young family.

Unfortunately, a life-altering decision that took place 20 years prior absolutely destroyed Becker’s family, including the person responsible, his son Booster (a fiery yet focused Eric Reid). A conversation is to be had at the jitney station, a conversation that Becker has avoided for the entire prison sentence of his son, choosing not to visit throughout that term. Now his son is released, and Booster visits his father.

Now honestly, there is nothing that can prepare you for the absolute magic that takes place on the Marines Memorial Theatre stage between Reid and Callender. This moment, with all of the rawness that comes with having a conversation that has been building for 20 years, was not what Becker wanted. He has spent those years avoiding everything his son has become. In a powerful moment that encompasses everything great about the words of Wilson, Becker expresses to his son what he’s got. But it’s what he doesn’t got that hits you square in the gut. Of all the things a man with a son wants, it has torn him apart for years that he will never have it.

But look at what is happening between Callender and Reid. Burning tears of hot fire are shed, the anger searing. What these two actors do is textbook – listen, react, accept the vulnerability, play the absolute, unvarnished truth, commit. Becker works from a place of such pain, while the vessel of his choices are channeled by the skill of Callender. He drives the scene, Reid matching him at every turn. Because of this, the audience submits fully to the drama, reaching exhaustion as the scene concludes.

This conversation is another fine example of the exploration of fathers and sons on the stage, reminiscent of Wilson’s Pulitzer work in “Fences,” between Troy and Cory, even relating to the failed dreams of Arthur Miller’s Willy Loman for his delusional sons in “Death of a Salesman.” Here, Becker has saved his best parenting for just the right moment. He pulls no punches in justifying his decisions that shaped a little boy’s own horrendous decision as a young, angry teen. And he has no regrets when he held his wife’s hand, as she lay dying in a hospital bed, exhausted and heartbroken.

Many of the great dramaturgical touches are magnificent. The metaphoric set by designer Kevin August Landesman is a combination of cracking walls and a caged fence, which hovers over these men and their perilous existence. And Miller’s sound design functions as a critical character, sweet soul music that expresses beautifully where a character is living in a specific moment.

While “Jitney” is filled with characters that are at a crossroads, it also passes along undying hope, exemplified by the final call that is answered on the ol’ rotary phone, and the final ride that is scheduled.

There is money to be made, suitcases to be thrown in trunks, and cars to keep clean. And for every drive these characters take down a daunting hill, the hope is that it’s only a matter of time before their cars climb to the sky once again.

WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO

The African-American Shakespeare Company presents “Jitney”
Written by August Wilson
Directed by L. Peter Callender
The Word: An honest and searing production of Wilson’s first play in his 10-play decades cycle. A beautiful portrayal of Black life in the 1970’s, the world created by a talented ensemble.
Stars: 5 out of 5
Through April 16th
Running Time: 2 hours, 15 minutes with one intermission
The Marines Memorial Theatre
609 Sutter Street, Second Floor
San Francisco, CA 94102
Tickets range from $22.50 – $32.50
For tickets, call (415) 762-2071 or visit the official website.

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