“The first act of Jitney is a perfect piece of theatrical carpentry that may well be the best thing Mr. Wilson ever wrote.
Make every effort to see it”  -Terry Teachout, The Wall Street Journal

*A telephone rings. A man jumps up from his circle of cronies, to pick up the ringing phone. “Cab Service. 125th and Lexington? Be there in 10 minutes. Blue car!” The cab driver makes his mark on the board, grabs his hat off the rack and walks out the door. He has just booked his cab. Seconds before he sat around the storefront with a crew of regulars who shoot the breeze, unapologetically meddle in other peoples’ lives and sometimes even find their bloody nose at the end of a fist. This is a day in the life of a jitney cab driver. “Jitney” is the term used in the African American community for a gypsy cab. Unlicensed, they drive the locals where traditional cab companies won’t go and set their own prices for the trip.

The South Coast Repertory production of “Jitney” begins its three-week stint at the Pasadena Playhouse in Pasadena, California, where a talented director and tight-knit ensemble of nine talented actors – all make their Pasadena Playhouse debut – and seem to effortlessly transport audiences to 1977 Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where the play is set. “Jitney” is the first of ten plays from the renowned “Pittsburgh Cycle” series by acclaimed playwright August Wilson. These plays document the African American experience in Wilson’s childhood neighborhood, decade by decade, over the course of the 20th century.

Pasadena Playhouse Artistic Director, Sheldon Epps, who has been in this role since 1997, admits to the numerous components he has to juggle when determining his season of plays. “We are criticized by some press for our choices…I agree with that…You have to meet your yearly budget. You have to do what will sell tickets…The challenge is not to completely sell out and kowtow to the audience…You don’t compromise your beliefs,” he says.

“Jitney” wasn’t even scheduled to run at the Pasadena Playhouse. But due to circumstances it replaces the play originally set to run. Amazing how things happen. Audiences should definitely recognize this inclusion as a gift in disguise.

“I think it is one of August Wilson’s most hopeful and optimistic plays,” Epps offers.

“Every time you do it with different actors…you find something different,” says director Ron OJ Parson, a native New Yorker and accomplished performer and director who has directed or acted in 19 August Wilson plays. Though Parson admits there is nothing in particular he looks for in casting, and chooses each actor based on the “vibe” he gets and not what they do in audition, the final cut for “Jitney” wasn’t an easy one. “I went home and I thought about it….talked with my assistant…The voices you hear talking is exactly what it sounds like when you go into a jitney station,” he adds.

The performances are stellar indeed. The accomplished ensemble works well together and each actor admits to being drawn to the play for personal reasons.

*“I get [to hear] my father’s voice. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to play this role,” says Charlie Robinson, who plays “Becker” — owner of the jitney station — with a beautifully quiet intensity and a solid sense of leadership. This is not Robinson’s first August Wilson play. He performed in “The Piano Lesson,” and even won a Best Actor in a Play Ovation Award for his portrayal of Troy in “Fences.”

Audiences will get a real kick out of Ellis E. Williams’ “Turnbo”, who is really the “life of the party” at the jitney station. The most meddlesome of them all, Williams’ character keeps the play moving as ‘life happens’ to the various relationships exposed. Williams, who has an extensive Broadway repertoire, totally immerses himself in his role and, through his delivery, audiences will most likely find themselves groaning at times, laughing at other times and even cringing in some instances from his characters’ very colorful personality.

Montae Russell plays “Booster” — Becker’s recently released from prison son. From the moment he enters the room, audiences feel it. He is just that powerful a presence. The strained relationship between “Booster” and his father — revealed through dynamic scenes and great dialogue will definitely touch a nerve.

August Wilson once said, “When I first started writing plays I couldn’t write good dialogue…I thought that in order to make art out of their dialogue I had to change it, make it into something different. Once I learned to value and respect my characters, I could really hear them.”

This play confirms that.

Kristy Johnson, a Harvard Law School graduate and former practicing attorney plays “Rena” – the distraught girlfriend (and baby-momma) of the youngest jitney driver. As the only female in the cast, Johnson’s “Rena” is thoroughly convincing and even likeable. In her scenes with Darnell especially, though understated, and possibly by the way she uses her voice, her character generally appears to be one iota away from a nervous breakdown; while the scene does not always appear to call for this. Johnson, who says her dressing room was the ‘party place’ for the rest of the cast, has also performed in other August Wilson plays.

David McKnight’s kind-hearted “Fielding” a sharp dresser who goes nowhere without his concealed bottle of courage; Larry Bates’ “Youngblood/Darnell” – the youngest of the cabbies, who will only take so much from a certain colleague, yet ‘cleans up well’; and James A. Watson, Jr. – a face audiences will find familiar from numerous television roles, who plays “Doub” confidante and loyal friend to “Becker” are all outstanding.  Ironically, McKnight’s father – who died at the age of 36 from alcoholism – was a jitney driver.

“Jitney” runs through July 15, 2012 at the Pasadena Playhouse located at 39 South El Molino Avenue in Pasadena, California. Performances are Tuesday through Friday at 8:00 p.m., Saturday at 4:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m., and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. For more information call 626-921-1161 or visit www.PasadenaPlayhouse.org.

RETRACTION: This review previously mentioned Mr. Robinson’s dad as having passed away at age 36 from alcoholism. This statement was erroneous and belonged to actor David McKnight who plays “Fielding” in the play. EURweb apologizes for the error and any inconvenience it may have caused. 

DeBorah B. Pryor began her career in journalism in New York City more than 30 years ago. She has been a contributing writer for Lee Bailey’s EURweb since 2003. She is also the author of “Public Speaking for the Private Person” a communications seminar designed for professionals who are thrust into public speaking situations due to their work. She teaches her seminar at local universities and community colleges throughout Los Angeles County. Visit her website at http://www.dpryorpresents.com for more information.