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Jitney ~ Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
September 22, 2019 

As the play opens, Turnbo pulls out a set of checkers from a purple felt Crown Royal whiskey sack and the mood is set.  It’s a 1977 snapshot of Pittsburgh’s Hill district in the office of a rundown gypsy cab station.  August Wilson’s period play focuses on eight African American jitney drivers of varying ages, and one young woman, Rena, girlfriend to Youngblood.  The scene tracks like the world of painter Thomas Hart Benton’s African American subjects, thanks in large part to the atmospheric set design by David Gallo.

(R to L) Amari Cheatom (Youngblood) and Nija Okoro (Rena) in Jitney. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Wilson hails from Pittsburgh and his life, and the unregulated jitney services his community used, was the basis for this play.  It is the first of ten plays in his American Century Cycle.  This gem of a play gifts us with an unfiltered view of the harsh, often times funny, life in a part of the black community when the Civil Rights movement was strengthening while, at the same time, black neighborhoods were being torn down and gentrified.  Program notes reveal that the Ellis Hotel, mentioned in the play, was a safe haven for African American travelers and that the actual Westbrook Station was the inspiration for Becker’s Station in Jitney.

(R to L) Steven Anthony Jones (Becker) and Amari Cheatom (Youngblood). Photo by Joan Marcus.

Turnbo, a big gossip, has his nose up in everybody’s business, “I just talk what I know,” he claims, but it doesn’t sit right with the other men and he soon becomes a pariah when he stiffs Youngblood over a cup of coffee he’s sent him out for.  Youngblood, trying to overcome his Vietnam War experiences, still has anger issues and the men fight when Turnbo accuses him of running around with Rena’s sister.  Sheely is a colorfully clad, pimp daddy numbers runner who uses the business as his office and Fielding is another driver whose affinity for the bottle is destroying his life.

(R to L) Steven Anthony Jones (Becker) and Francois Battiste (Booster). Photo by Joan Marcus.

Becker, a straight up guy and owner of the jitney service, learns his son Booster is getting out of prison after a twenty-year sentence for murder.  Tension explodes when the son confronts his father, each feeling the other is a disappointment and the cause of the untimely death of Booster’s mother.  And then there’s, Doub, a Korean war veteran who bonds with the other men in swapping war stories and serves as a counterbalance to the hostilities.

(R to L) Harvy Blanks (Shealy) and Amari Cheatom (Youngblood). Photo by Joan Marcus.

Called the “Shakespeare of American playwrights”, Wilson’s wry drama is a particularly optimum choice for the opening of Arena’s season-long Festival celebrating the playwright’s work.  Jitney is directed by the brilliant Ruben Santiago-Hudson who won the 2017 Tony Award for “Best Revival of a Play” for his Broadway production of the play.

(R to L) Amari Cheatom (Youngblood), Harvy Blanks (Shealy) and Brian D. Coats (Philmore). Photo by Joan Marcus.

It’s a gem of a opener with a phenomenal cast.  Highly recommended.

Francois Battiste (Broadway’s Bronx Bomber, Prelude to a Kiss) as Booster; Harvey Blanks (Broadway’s Jitney) as Shealy; Amari Cheatom (Django Unchained, Roman J. Israel, Esq.) as Youngblood; Anthony Chisholm (Broadway’s Jitney); Brian D. Coats (Broadway’s Jitney) as Philmore; Steven Anthony Jones (longtime veteran of August Wilson’s plays) as Becker; Nija Okoro as Rena; Keith Randolph Smith (Broadway’s Jitney, King Hedley II) as Doub; and Ray Anthony Thomas (Broadway’s Jitney, The Crucible). 

Scenic Designer David Gallo; Costume Designer Toni-Leslie James; Lighting Designer Jane Cox; Original Music composed by Bill Sims, Jr.

Through October 20th at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024.  For tickets and information call 202 488-3300 or visit www.ArenaStage.org.

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