Dear Readers, we are gifted yet again with a staging of an August Wilson play in the backyard of his boyhood home. First it was Seven Guitars, then King Hedley II – both of which used the (at the time) long-neglected structure as a backdrop to the action, which lent the productions an only-in-Pittsburgh historical authenticity. Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company’s production of Jitney is the first to be produced at the newly-renovated and just-grand-opened August Wilson House, which has space indoors for cultural programming and a beautifully landscaped yard for outdoor events and performances. But the polish on the house takes nothing away from the aura of “realness” that marked previous productions in the space, and like its predecessors, Jitney feels like it transports you back in time on the very spot where you sit.
Director Mark Clayton Southers has gathered together an ensemble of actors who seem to understand the characters who populate the late 1970s Hill District deep in their bones. Jitney is (somewhat like Two Trains Running) a play in which the characters – drivers for what I have come to realize was a proto-Uber service – spend a great deal of time gossiping and getting on each other’s nerves. The car service station that is the setting for the action is a place of downtime: it’s where the drivers relax and kibitz while waiting for their next customers, and it’s a credit to both Southers’s direction and the actors’ insight into their roles that all that downtime never taxes your patience. On the contrary, much of it is pretty damn funny. Mike Traylor is brilliant and hilarious as the alcoholic Fielding – he doesn’t play “drunk” but embodies the kind of person who is a functioning drunk (and you see the difference vividly in a scene in which the young Philmore (Boykin Anthony) is, in contrast, incapacitatedly in his cups). Les Howard must have studied every grumpy old man in existence in preparation to play Turnbo, to whom he gives a stubborn righteousness and comical blindness to his own contradictions. He’s a constant meddler, which Howard physicalizes through a repeated lazzi that involves turning over his chair cushions. As the mellow, live-and-let-live Doub, Chuck Timbers provides a perfect foil to Howard’s testy Turnbo, and they give off a pitch-perfect old-married-couple vibe when they bicker about whether to trust Fielding with a loan of $4, or debate whether Lena Horne is prettier than Sara Vaughn, or get het up in some other likewise massively low-stakes disagreement.
A lot of the humor in this play stems from its generational conflict, and this is also the source of the play’s more serious concerns. Turnbo gets his panties most in a twist over his disapproval of Youngblood (played by Dionysus Akeem the evening I saw the show; regularly played by Richard McBride), a young Vietnam Vet whose motives and actions are opaque to Turnbo. Youngblood is equally mystified by Turnbo’s interest in his affairs, and he bristles at Turnbo’s scolding and schooling. The manager of the station, Becker (Sala Udin at most performances, but played by Kevin Brown the night I attended) is a rule-bound member of the older generation who, twenty years previously, washed his hands of his son Booster (Jonathan Berry, powerfully vulnerable in the role) after Booster went to jail for killing his girlfriend. Booster’s release from prison, and his attempt to heal the rift with his father, forms the spine of pathos in this play, but the threat of change that hangs over the whole neighborhood (as it always seems to be in Wilson’s work, the city is about to bulldoze the block) creates an atmosphere in general of both comic and tragic tension between the younger generation – represented by Youngblood, Philmore, the numbers-runner Shealy (Roosevelt Watts), and Youngblood’s girlfriend Rena (Elexa Hammer) – and their elders. It’s a tension that is crystallized in the play’s two primary real estate transactions: Youngblood is using the money he earns, along with his GI benefits, to buy a house out in Penn Hills, while Becker and the old fogies make plans to squat in their location and refuse to let the city board up their block.
The production has many strengths in addition to the fine realization of character and character relationships by the actors. Cheryl El-Walker’s costumes feel authentic not only to the period but also to the social and generational status of each of the characters – in particular, Youngblood and Rena are recognizably living in a different sartorial era than the older men. The set design (Southers, doing double duty), has details of authenticity that go beyond its placement at 1727 Bedford Ave in the Lower Hill. The furnishings include a hideous orange couch with mismatched cushions and an old cushioned armchair, both of which swallow up poor Turnbo every time he sits (and he sits a lot!). There are also nice realist touches in the vintage payphone, fridge, calendar, and assorted magazines that Turnbo browses through when he’s not sticking his nose in other people’s business. The production has a few weaknesses, too: chief among these is the difficulty in hearing the dialogue, as the actors are in constant competition with cicadas, sirens, airplanes, fireworks (!), and other city sounds. Perhaps there is a philanthropist among my readership who might help the PPTCo beef up its sound equipment?
A placard on the upstage wall lists the jitney rates to various parts of town – ranging from $2 for the Hill, to $7.50 for the airport – and as you look at the familiar destinations – Giant Eagle, Penn Hills, Point Breeze, East Liberty – you realize that these have meaning here that they wouldn’t have if the play were staged in, say, Chicago or Detroit. As someone who is not native to the ‘burgh, I love that seeing these plays here – and especially here, at the August Wilson House – makes them come alive in a way that they never could before I moved here, and that Pittsburghers have the great good fortune to experience them in a special and intimate way because we know this place (and some of you, my dear Readers, may even have known the city as it was then). What the Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company is doing in the August Wilson House yard feels like a magic time travel trick, and it’s one that couldn’t be achieved anywhere else in the world.