Thursday, January 30, 2020

Back At The Old Globe “Jitney” is Finally Home.

Any day you have the opportunity to see an August Wilson play, is a good day.

The two -time Pulitzer Prize winner and playwright is most noted for his American Century Cycle (“The Pittsburg Cycle”) of 10 plays each representing a different decade in this century, from 1986 to 2007.
Amari Cheatom and Ray Anthony Thomas
Chronicling the African American experience was his goal. In play after play audiences are able to have an eye opening glimps, through Wilson’s eyes, of the Black experience in America over time. It wasn’t always pretty and it is still not.

His association with the Old Globe dates back to the early 90’s with his then director Lloyd Richards, who directed his plays for years, and whose name was linked to Wilson’s. From my count Richards directed at least six of the ten.

Those of us lucky enough to have been around then with his “Two Trains Running”, “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” and “The Piano Lesson”, opening his pre Broadway productions, and with man himself in the audience along with Richards, could barely contain ourselves. 

Amari Cheatom, Harvy Blanks and Brian Coats as Philmore
“Jitney”, written first in 1982, was the first of the cycle plays written by Wilson, but was pushed back on the shelves (it now comes somewhere in the middle of the cycle) for some time before going to Broadway, while others rose in popularity. It is currently getting its due.

Director Ruben Santiago-Hudson brought it to Broadway (after some rewrites) where it finally won the 2017 Tony Award for best revival. In association with The Manhattan Theatre Club, it is now on national tour stopping at The Old Globe and running through Feb.28th

“Jitney” takes place in the late seventies and explores the effects of urban redevelopment in the ‘District’ and how it impacts the lives of the men who drive unlicensed (jitney’s or gypsy cabs) taxies for a living. White taxies owners would not drive into the District and Black business men could not get official permits, ergo jitney’s. 

The setting is the worn down jitney office/garage belonging to Jim Becker (a steady as he goes-Steven Anthony Jones) who owns/manages the garage.  It’s the local hangout where hopes and dreams are made and shattered.
Ray Anthony Thomas (seated), Amari Cheatom, Stephen Anthony Jones and Keith Randolph Smith as Doub
Those who find the garage their home away from home, tell their stories and try to figure out, if and when their incomes are cut off when the city urbanizes their neighborhood, what they will do next.

Conflicts come and go; small stuff like who plays the better game of checkers? Who will finance Feilding’s  (Anthony Chisholm) next drink?  

And why was Youngblood (Amari Cheatom), who recently returned from Vietnam and trying to better himself, so secretive around his girlfriend Rena (Nija Okoro) who accuses him of having an affair? Could it be because of Turnbo (an excellent Ray Anthony Thomas), a chronic troublemaker who can’t seem to stop himself from spreading gossiping?

Shealy (Harvy Blanks) is your friendly, flamboyant (Oy those Leisure Suits are a sight) Bookie who uses the shop’s business phone to call in his bets. His character is more ‘caricature’ than character.
Amri Cheatom and Nija Okoro
The activity plays out as the men come and go, shoot the breeze …and take calls from customers wanting a pickup and to be taken here and there. There is more than meets the eye in this busy but less frantic in pace, in this over two plus hours of high and low drama’s, most of which deals with life as they know it in a community they grew up in and live, all the while cementing long- term friendships.

The tide turns when Becker’s son Booster (an excellent Francois Battiste) comes on the scene. Just released from jail after a twenty -five year sentence for murder, the two have an encounter that rocks us to the rafters and reaches deep into the souls of both men shocking us out of a reverie that floats over us when least expected.

It’s a father and son encounter the likes of which I could never imagine. But life goes on, as we will find out at show’s end. No spoilers here except to say that both men, standing eye to eye rose to the solemn moment that defined how pent up hostilities can eat away at us from the inside out.
Stephen Anthony Jones and Amari Cheatom

From the outset the banter, the talk has a rhythm and pace of its own as only those understanding every word will attest. Yours truly had some difficulty picking up on some of the dialogue especially Anthony Chisholm’s Fielding. His cadences, as the alcholic looking for four dollars for his next drink, seemed overreaching and exaggerated, as was the speed talk coming from Harvey Blank’s Shealy who was more of a ‘caricature’ than character.

The play opens to a long and original jazz number (Bill Sims, Jr.) that does go on seemingly without end. When the lights come up the garage and outside businesses, the creative work of David Gallo show the shabby and used furniture set against a wall with names and turns of drivers, a telephone, a well worn couch, a chair or two and Becker’s desk, refrigerator and magazines; all accessories needed for a business office.  Outside the dusty windows a few cars needing work are parked and telephone wires stretch across the horizon and that is lined with tenement buildings.  

Jane Cox designed the lighting to coincide with the weather and times of day, and Darron L. West and Charles Coes created the sound design with Toni-Leslie James period correct costumes. 
Stephen Anthony Jones and Francois Battiste
Wilson’s works gives us a different lens (as in white) to see the world through someone else’s eyes (as in non white). Taking us out of ourselves is a necessary step toward understanding the ‘other’. Wilson knew this.

I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge our own 'King' Antonio TJ Johnson who in his past and present life presented all the Wilson Cycle  plays on stage some years ago.

Now is the chance to see the Broadway revival of a Wilson work that will be placed firmly in the cycle along with the others.

It’s a good day!

See you at the theatre.

Dates: Through Feb. 28th
Organization: The Old Globe
Phone: 619-234-5623
Production Type: Drama
Where: 1363 Old Globe Way, Balboa Park, San Diego, CA 92103
Ticket Prices: Start at $30.00
Venue: Donald and Darlene Shiley Stage
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

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