Of course, Penumbra has a long history with August Wilson's work, and put on one of the first productions of Jitney in 1985. The show was last seen on this stage in 2000. The new production is as close to perfection as I can imagine.
Over the years, Wilson continued to revise the script, which tells the story of an unlicensed cab, or "jitney" station. The drivers provide a service to the African American residents of Pittsburgh's Hill District, where licensed taxis refused to go. Wilson's story is a masterful work of drama that draws the audience into the lives of its characters without judging them. The naturalistic dialogue allows the story to unfold without obvious exposition, allowing the characters to reveal themselves gradually.
|Jasmine Hughes, Terry Bellamy, Darrick Mosley,|
and Abdul Salaam El Razzac. Photo: Allen Weeks
Marcus Naylor plays Fielding, a driver who is a cheerful drunk with an underlying well of regrets. Longtime Penumbra company member T. Mychael Rambo is both delightful and heartbreaking as Philmore, a regular passenger and friend to the crew, and company member Kevin D. West plays Shealy, a fast-talking bookie who takes calls at the jitney station in spite of Becker's complaints. The ensemble is rounded out by one more company member, James T. Alfred, who arrives well into the story as Becker's son Booster, who has just been released from prison.
|Abdul Salaam El Razzac as Doub.|
Photo: Allen Weeks
The amazing attention to detail doesn't feel fussy, but it allows the characters and their trials to attain a realism I have seldom seen on the stage. It is a testament to the production that I was able to watch so many familiar faces on stage and to really see past the actors to only focus on the characters, without seeing echoes of previous roles and productions I've seen and admired them in.
Although the physical production grounds the story in 1977 Pittsburgh, the people and the things that happen to and around them are completely relatable and transcend the time period. Gentrification is still an issue in our cities, and people are always struggling to understand their place in the world and how to improve it and deal with their relationships while making ends meet. People everywhere try to define themselves outside of their family and their history, and carry the weight of others' expectations and assumptions.
Above all, Jitney is a play about humanity, which it demonstrates through every word and action. Penumbra's production is a singular opportunity to see this August Wilson masterwork performed by an ensemble that understands his material inside and out. It might be the definitive production of this essential play by one of our greatest American playwrights.
|Kevin D. West, Abdul Salaam El Razzac, James T. Alfred, Terry Bellamy, Darrick Mosley, |
Jasmine Hughes, James Craven, T. Mychael Rambo, and Marcus Naylor. Photo: Allen Weeks
If you're a fan of Penumbra's work, you will have seen this production. If you have not seen what this company can do, or if you wanted to see more of August Wilson's work, but didn't know where to start, this is the time and place to dive in. I could say many more wonderful things about this show, but the message is simple. See this play.