There are times when an avid theatergoer gets so discouraged that staying home to watch TV actually seems like a viable option. Why venture out and pay good money to see yet another opportunistic jukebox musical, soullessly jokey comedy, half-hearted revival, or rough and underfunded new play that really needs to be worked over by a good dramaturg before it's ready for public consumption?
But then some company presents a play that's heartfelt and true, perceptively directed, acted with profound understanding of the characters, and designed with such intelligence that the story and characters are supported and amplified by every detail of costume, set, sound and light. And then we remember why we should turn off the TV and take a chance on the theater.
Arizona Theatre Company has mounted just such a production, a moving, funny, finely wrought version of August Wilson's Jitney.
Wilson, who died last year as one of the most honored of all contemporary American playwrights, wrote a great many stage works, but his magnum opus is a cycle of 10 plays, each set in a different decade of the 20th century, each slicing a bit of life from--for the most part--the Hill District of Pittsburgh, where he grew up. Wilson's characters are African American, and their success in the world, or lack of it, is inevitably affected by the changing ways an urban African-American culture fits into a larger white society through the course of the century. But by and large, Wilson refused to make his characters represent the Downtrodden Black Man. His characters succeed or flounder to varying degrees through their individual strengths and failings, and through the ways they connect with or fall away from their families and neighbors. Wilson gave us specific people, not symbols.
Wilson did not write his cycle in chronological order. Jitney came first, in 1982, and it is set in the mid-1970s in the worn office of a car service, or private cab company, run by an honorable but weary man named Becker (played by Brian Anthony Wilson with the kind of heaviness that settles on you slowly over the years). Becker's drivers are a motley bunch. There's a cocky, ambitious young Vietnam vet called Youngblood (the dynamic James T. Alfred) and a feisty, volatile busybody named Turnbo (played with gusto by James Craven like a more focused Redd Foxx). There's Fielding (the simultaneously comic and heartbreaking Chuck Patterson), a money-cadging alcoholic in a zoot suit he'd probably made himself decades earlier in his glory years as tailor to leading jazz lights. There's Doub (warmly played by Bus Howard), the quiet voice of reason. And there are a couple of local hangers-on, notably an old peacock named Shealy (played to strutting perfection by Abdul Salaam El Razzac), who runs numbers out of the jitney office. (Let's not forget the sympathetic actor Adolphus Ward, who is saddled with a superfluous character.)
Jitney starts out with these men bickering, laughing, telling stories off the street and offering unwanted advice, passing time between calls in a job that doesn't amount to a whole lot but is far better than whatever else they might have ended up with. Gradually, three conflicts come into play that begin to move the fairly slim plot along. First, Youngblood and his woman, Rena (the assertive Julia Pace Mitchell), are on the outs; he's working multiple jobs and investing all his money into a house he intends to surprise Rena with, but she suspects he's cheating on her. Second, city bureaucrats are about to board up the office and everything on its block in the name of urban renewal, and Becker's at the point where he doesn't know whether he wants to find a new office or just give up. He's distracted, anyway, by the third conflict: His son, Booster, has just been released from prison after serving 20 years for murder. (Booster is played with dignity, intelligence, frustration and sorrow by Jacinto Taras Riddick.)
Wilson kept rewriting Jitney over the years, and it still isn't perfect. He introduces a gun in the first act that is strangely forgotten in the second; the audience is so busy waiting for that gun to come out and shoot someone innocent that they probably miss a lot of subtleties along the way. And the structure, oddly, is an arch that peaks exactly in the middle of the play and then falls off steeply in the second act.
That peak is a powerful scene between Becker and Booster, full of the bitter resentment that's possible only between people who used to love and respect each other. Wilson writes this scene with such skill that each man's point seems reasonable and true, until it's rebutted by the other.
But later, Wilson offers a weak double of this scene, now between Youngblood and Rena, and for them, the stakes are lower. Then, near the end, something bad happens, but it happens offstage as in a Greek tragedy, and it seems like a too-easy, manipulative way to force the characters to work around their problems.
Yet the script holds together better if you think of it as a Gustav Mahler symphony translated into the words of black men in Philadelphia. Most of Mahler's symphonies are about the struggle against adversity, and the better ones end not with the triumphalism of Beethoven but with a hard-won acceptance, a quiet tension maintained to nearly the last bars. Mahler's music blends intense drama with bumptious country dances, sardonic parody and yearning nostalgia, and if things ultimately come out well--often, they don't--success seems uncertain, even once it's arrived. And that is precisely what we find in Jitney.
Director Lou Bellamy worked extensively with Wilson, and he serves as the ever-perceptive Leonard Bernstein to Wilson's Mahler. Vicki Smith's set design places Wilson's people in a drab but not hopeless space, and Matthew LeFebvre's keenly retro costumes tell us much that we need to know about each character even before the actors open their mouths.
Arizona Theatre Company always delivers August Wilson plays with sympathy and insight, and Jitney is one of the company's finest efforts yet--not just on behalf of Wilson, but on behalf of all that is best about American theater.