August Wilson’s 'Jitney' Brings Humor and Warmth to the Taper

Each of August Wilson’s 10 plays in his Century Cycle is a unique and powerful entity, while also an integral component of what is possibly American theater’s most towering and awesome achievement.

The one that may be the most special, though, is Jitney, the first written but the last to open on Broadway.

It’s a slice-of-life glimpse into drivers for a 1970s unlicensed cab service in Pittsburgh that shows not only Wilson’s talent for dialogue and tightly woven storylines, but it’s also a roadmap for the journey his subsequent nine tales take across the 1900s.

There’s perhaps no better tour guide to this world than director Ruben Santiago-Hudson, a Tony-winner for his performance in Wilson’s Seven Guitars, who promised the playwright before he died in 2005 that he would get Jitney to Broadway. He fulfilled that promise, and the production won the 2017 Tony for Best Revival. Now on national tour, the powerful and captivating show is running through Dec. 29 at Downtown’s Mark Taper Forum.

None of Wilson’s plays are short, but even at more than two-and-a-half hours, Jitney never lets up. It starts with Bill Sims Jr.’s new, era-specific guitar driven original music that plays as the drivers enter and remains fascinating until the final line, which drives home the idea that this jumbled mix of often troubled men are a family.

The de-facto father is Becker (Steven Anthony Jones), who runs the car service out of a dilapidated office that exudes weariness (a detailed set designed by David Gallo). He’s a boss who, having worked hard to get where he is, wants to avoid drama and keep the peace among the disparate drivers.

That’s not easy, given that Turnbo (Ray Anthony Thomas) has an opinion on everyone’s personal business, which particularly doesn’t sit well with the Vietnam vet Youngblood (understudy James T. Alfred, in an intense and impressive turn this evening). The pair’s battle takes a threatening turn, and Santiago-Hudson taut direction makes the moment startling and explosive.

While Becker is trying to keep the peace, and keep his car service from losing its location, he’s dealing with the return of his son, Booster (Francois Battiste), who just got out of prison for murder after 20 years. The two haven’t spoken in that time, and their reunion is the epitome of tension.

Wilson’s dramatic moments are what people will remember, but it’s the way his scripts are balanced with humor that makes the contrasting emotions powerful. Many of Jitney’s best laughs come from Shealy (Harvy Blanks), a numbers runner who takes bets and uses the car service phone for his business. His stories about trying to forget the face of the woman he loves build to a hilarious crescendo.

Santiago-Hudson’s cast is loaded with Wilson veterans, so it’s not surprising that there’s not a weak performance amongst the cast. Blanks, who has appeared in all 10 plays, has the cadence and casual delivery that entices listeners to eavesdrop on his stories. Likewise, Anthony Chisholm, who portrays the often drunk Fielding — as he did in the 2000 production at the Taper — seems born to play the character. What could easily be a stereotypical turn as a staggering slurring alcoholic, Chisholm turns into a poet, whose words almost come out as a song of sadness and regret, albeit with gentle humor.

Santiago-Hudson, who shined earlier this year at the Taper in his revival of the one-man show Lackawanna Blues, is a master of pacing. Perhaps it’s his musical background. The barely restrained overlap of dialogue and highly physical action, transitioning into subtle and deliberate action almost resembles a jazz number that feels free-flowing while carefully crafted.

Of Center Theatre Group’s wonderful contributions, perhaps the most important is its long-standing relationship with Wilson. While the playwright’s work with the company is finished, Santiago-Hudson and this cast make clear the work is far from over in its ability to impact theatergoers for generations to come.

Jitney runs through Dec. 29 at the Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave. or