Jitney, by powerhouse playwright August Wilson, is the kind of play you should go see cold. Seriously, stop reading this review now, and go buy tickets to Arena’s Stage’s human, heartbreaking and hilarious portal into the authenticity of quotidian black life. Wilson’s magnificent script pulls you in from the first scene, immersing you in the lives of its inhabitants.
Jitney is part of the Pittsburgh Cycle, ten plays by Wilson set in the Hill District neighborhood of Pittsburgh, one for each decade of the twentieth century. Set in 1977, Jitney plays open the everyday lives and intergenerational changing of the guard of a motley band of working-class black men driving unlicensed cabs, or jitneys. David Gallo’s corner station house set is a scuffed microcosm of the neighborhood’s grit, sorrow, ruination and joy, showing the marks of economic oppression, psychological upheaval, and gentrification, but refusing to capsize. Its careworn naugahyde and linoleum offer the perfect backdrop for Toni-Leslie James’s candy colored costumes.
The gift of Jitney is conversation – natural, believable everyday colloquy. Wilson’s repertoire can, in some works, seem bogged down by an impeding sense of inevitable doom, yet Jitney offers a more spontaneous, organic tempo, neatly sidestepping the temptation to stray into clichéd narratives, instead filling life’s hardscrabble cracks with the comedy necessary to just keep on going. The cast of nine are richly developed and believably acted. Even as generations, dreams, and demands conflict, the men (and woman) comprise a co-dependent organism that both battles and bolsters itself from within, girded to survive life’s daily toll. Where they clash, the opposition is articulate and thought provoking. Where they soar is when the many-legged beast aligns on the same course.
Jitney opens Arena Stage’s season-long Wilson Festival celebrating the Pulitzer Prize-winning titan of the stage, with Ruben Santiago-Hudson directing his 2017 Broadway production — recipient of the 2017 Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play. Arena Stage’s presentation kicks off Jitney’s National Tour.
Jitney is playing at Arena Stage Kreeger Theater at the Mead Center for American Theater from through October 20, 2019 (1101 Sixth St. SW, Washington DC 20024). Running time: two hours and 15 minutes with one 15 minute intermission. For information or tickets call 202-488-3300 or click here.
Photos credit: Joan Marcus
UPDATE: The Tony Award-winning Broadway production of August Wilson’s Jitney will receive an additional six performances during its run at Arena Stage. Under the direction of Tony Award-winner Ruben Santiago-Hudson, the production now runs through October 27, 2019 in the Kreeger Theater.