Theater Review: JITNEY (Mark Taper Forum)

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by Dale Reynolds on November 30, 2019

in Theater-Los Angeles


The late August Wilson (1945-2005) was a truly great American playwright, the most prolifically produced African-American playwright of all time. Jitney, now at the Mark Taper Forum until December 29, was his last play of his “Century Plays” to be produced on Broadway (winner of the 2017 Best Revival) but was the first to be written of those plays, and has played extensively across American and Europe.

Here in a stunning production, with some of the original cast from 2002, we are in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1977. A jitney is any car unlicensed to taxi folk around, and because this part of Pittsburgh is largely black, licensed cabs won’t come in to pick up customers who need rides, leaving it to entrepreneurs such as Jim Becker (Steven Anthony Jones), a widower with a son, Booster (Francois Battiste), now in his early 40s, who has just been released from prison after a 20-year sentence for murder.

The drivers are old Fielding (Anthony Chisholm), now an alcoholic, but once a fine clothier; gossipy Tunbo (Ray Anthony Thomas); Koran War vet Doub (Keith Randolph Smith); and handsome Darnell ”Youngblood” Williams (Amari Cheatum), in his late 20s. Of all the drivers, Darnell is most motivated to succeed as he provides for his girlfriend, Rena (Nija Okoro) and their two year old — purchasing a house in a decent neighborhood. Rounding out the denizens are Philmore (Brian D. Coats), a frequent passenger, and Shealy (Harvey Blanks), an older poseur who runs a “numbers” game out of the headquarters.

The City is tearing down the block that this business resides in, ostensibly for gentrified housing, but realistically to just drive out its inhabitants. This sets up some fears that the men will not find other employment, precipitating conflicts between them. But the main issue surrounds the first time Booster has seen his father in two decades and the love between them is hard for either to grasp. The drivers here have bonded well, so fear of loss is at hand. Potentially hurt the most is Youngblood, trying desperately to better his life for himself, Rena and their child.

It’s a terrific play, in a solid production, on a gloriously inhabited set (design by David Gallo), fronting a skyline of dilapidated Pittsburgh, and sensitively costumed by Toni-Leslie James. Director Ruben Santiago-Hudson has a firm hand on the pacing, making the 2.5 hour long performance (with one 15-minute intermission) flow seamlessly.

All the acting is superior, with no standouts among the nine characters played as they effortlessly inhabit their characters. Santiago-Hudson — a terrific actor himself — is to be commended for his excellent skills as a director. This flawless production is exciting as well as demanding, both for the cast and for the audience.

See it!

photos by Joan Marcus

Manhattan Theatre Club production
Center Theatre Group’s Mark Taper Forum
Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave
ends on December 29, 2019
for tickets, call 213.628.2772 or visit CTG

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