Memphis Flyer

Jitney is August Wilson’s underappreciated masterpiece.

May 3, 2018 4:00 AM

When August Wilson wrote Jitney in 1979, he hadn't yet decided on his master plan to chronicle the modern African-American experience by penning one play for each decade of the 20th century. Maybe that's why, of all Wilson's Pittsburgh plays, the 1977-set work is, perhaps, the most completely and unselfconsciously of its time.The looks, textures, and sounds echoing inside of Becker's illegal gypsy cab company couldn't exist in any other decade. Conversely, Jitney's themes of legacy, family, inequity, perpetual war, and the roots of violence remain timeless, even as the recent ride-sharing revolution created by Uber and Lyft, threatens to dull some of the play's edge with false familiarity.

When Becker's drivers, who work for low pay inside a community that's been shut out by highly regulated cab companies, say "brown car," or "red Chevy," into the pay-phone receiver, their terse instructions mirror the experience of using modern rideshare apps. To fully appreciate what Wilson's done with this play, it's imperative to understand that, while this behavior is normal and honorable, it's also technically subversive, and the playwright has done much more than deliver a handful of funny, touching character studies. He has, with very little attention paid to the more shopworn tropes of white bigotry, created a photo negative of Kaufman & Hart's screwball comedy You Can't Take It With You, while painting an extraordinary, humor-infused portrait of an American alternative economy created by racist exclusion.

Too often "alternative economy" is treated as a synonym for drug dealers and prostitutes. But for every person working the vice beat, there's a clutch of shade-tree mechanics, impromptu restaurateurs, door-to-door lawn care professionals, handymen, and skilled and unskilled folks working maintenance for their landlords in exchange for rent forgiveness. Other than the friendly neighborhood numbers man Shealy (played to the deep purple hilt by Jamel Tate), and Philmore, a hotel bellman with a gift for blowing money (Marcus Cox), these are the flawed, striving, and surviving characters Wilson wants us to know better.

Jitney introduces us to Becker, a retired mill worker who has a house, a loving wife, a small pension, and a small underground car service threatened by gentrification. He also has a son, Booster (Steven Fox) who went to jail because he killed the rich white woman who falsely accused him of rape in order to make some truth out of the lie he was going to pay for anyway.

More subtly, Jitney tells a story of black wealth (or lack thereof), and inherited values, in a system where poverty's exacerbated by bad faith policies that make it hard to own anything of value, let alone keep it for your whole life or pass it down to your children.

As Becker, Lawrence Blackwell projects a quiet, towering decency at odds with an inability to forgive his son. It's a rich, unfussy performance the scope of which can only be realized just before the final blackout, when tragic endings transform into a new, uncertain beginnings. Even in his absence Becker's the boss — a respected patriarch judging, sheltering, and defending his weird extended family like a Bible hero.

Hattiloo's Jitney was directed by Steve Broadnax and boasts a terrific ensemble of character actors including TC Sharpe as Turnbo, a volatile gossip, and Paul Arnett as the level-headed Korean war vet Daub. Bertram Williams Jr. plays Vietnam vet Youngblood, who's managing flashbacks and working multiple jobs to buy a home for Rena, his kid's mom (Dawn Bradley).

As Fielding, a one time clothier to kings of the jazz age transformed by time and addiction into a feeble mooch, Jesse Dunlap is outstanding. Wilson's written the character as a walking, talking blues song and clown role in the noblest sense. Fielding's full of history, wisdom, and value but wrecked by fate and appetite, and Dunlap owns it all — the good, the bad, and the incorrigible.

Fences is Wilson's most celebrated work. And casual theater fans probably know The Piano Lesson, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, and maybe Seven Guitars or Joe Turner's Come and Gone. With good humor and a begrudging but real sense of hope, the lesser-known Jitney shows us the human underpinnings of so many things even woke America is still awakening to. Attention must be paid.

Jitney at Hattiloo Theatre through May 13th. $22-$30,

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