After an acclaimed run at the South Coast Repertory, August Wilson’s Jitney comes to the Pasadena Playhouse for a brief stint.
Jitney is one of Wilson’s earliest works…and it shows. Though the characters are colorful and the dialogue rings true, the dramatic situations don’t really stand up to the rigors of two long acts.
The play focuses on the denizens of an impoverished gypsy cab station in 1977 Pittsburgh: Becker (Charlie Robinson), the uptight boss; Doub (James A. Watson, Jr.), the Korean War vet with a hairtrigger temper; Youngblood (Larry Bates), the kid trying to build a life with his girlfriend, Rena (Kristy Johnson); Turnbo (Ellis E. Williams), the office gossip; and Fielding (David McKnight), whose thoughts tend toward the poetic and who keeps a secret bottle of pick-me-up in his jacket pocket. Facing extinction due to a bad economy and an upcoming urban renewal project, they all have different reactions to their fate.
Wilson’s piquant dialogue does well to convey the personalities of these characters, but the situations aren’t particularly compelling. Doub is furious with Becker for concealing the fact that the business is about to be closed. Turnbo has a long-standing grudge against Youngblood, partly because he thinks the younger man isn’t giving him the respect he deserves, and partly because he still considers himself a ladies’ man who can steal Rena away from him. Becker has an unhappy reunion with his son, Booster (Montae Russell), who is unrepentant after serving 20 years in prison for killing a white girl.
Jitney‘s focus is on the African-American man’s status in 1970s America, and a lot of it rings true. While Youngblood, a Vietnam vet, encounters bigotry as he’s trying to grab his share of the American dream, Fielding has long since given up any such dreams and Turnbo has practically become a fishwife. Unfortunately, the central conflict between Becker and his son is more confusing than intense, especially in the weaker second act.
Most of the cast is engaging and up to the task, including the masterful Robinson and the world-weary McKnight, but Russell falls short dramatically and Johnson is awkwardly wooden. The production – including Shaun Motley’s well-worn set and Dana Rebecca Woods’ great period costuming – is spot-on. Director Ron OJ Parson keeps things moving briskly, but the choice of period music between scenes engenders a party atmosphere that doesn’t necessarily mesh with the dramatic scenes to come.
Overall, the show plays like an episode of a Norman Lear sitcom of the same era, and – judging by the enthusiastic laughter from the audience on opening night – maybe it achieves that goal.
Jitney plays Tuesday through Sunday through July 15 at the Pasadena Playhouse, 39 South El Molino Avenue. Reservations can be made online or by calling (626) 355-7539.