August Wilson is the most successful black playwright in America. He has twice won the Pulitzer Price for Drama (Fences, The Piano Lesson). Wilson's main body of work consists of eight plays each representing one decade of the black experience in 20th Century America. Of these, the Denver Center Theatre Company is about to perform it's seventh, Jitney.
Jitney is actually one of Wilson's earliest plays: it was not originally part of his landmark series and did not receive the critical acclaim that has accompanied almost all of Wilson's later work. On the verge of having it performed at the Denver Center six years ago, Wilson withdrew the play for rewriting, promising to bring it back here when he was finished. During its hiatus, Wilson substantially rewrote Jitney, and skewed its timeline, so that it now represents the 70's.
Most of Wilson's plays, including Jitney, are set in the Hill District of Pittsburgh where the playwright was born and raised. A Jitney is a gypsy cab, an unlicensed service that picks up where the white cab companies refused to service. Part of Wilson's genius is his use of such sundry activities to illustrate the historical conditions of racism in America without preaching or analyzing.
Indeed, during the unfolding of the story that takes place entirely in and immediately around the dilapidated headquarters of the quasi-legal ferrying operation, the nine characters manage to recreate an entire decade without losing focus of their day-to-day routines and the musical dialect that forms the basis of their exchanges. The legal segregation of real estate redlining and "urban renewal," the economic emasculation of black males, and the patience and nurturing matriarchal influences of African-American culture permeate their lives.
As with all of Wilson's plays, Jitney is an ensemble effort. Charles Weldon is authoritative as Jim Becker, the stoic, hard-working proprietor of the jitney "car service," surrounded by a contentious, but generally well-meaning band of drivers, each with their own story. In his best performance in 17 years at the center, Harvy Blanks' Turnbo is in everybody's business, stirring the pot of dissention at every turn with his incessant pontifications. John Wesley Doub is the peacemaker, an equanimous voice crying out in the wilderness of alcoholism, macho pretensions, and mistrust.
There is visionary despondency in Marcus Naylor's natty Fielding; the hustle and flash of Keith L. Hatten's Shealy, the numbers man; the smoldering impatience and surprising ambitions of C.J. Lindsey's "Youngblood"; Dwayne Carrington's struggling yet dignified Philmore; Erika LaVonn's stable and impressionable Rena; and the magnetic, explosive, and ultimately triumphant tour de force of Jacinto Taras Riddick's "Booster."
As has become his custom, Wilson approaches Shakespearean length (2½ hours) in getting to his conclusion, but his mastery of drama-packed dialogue and ironic storytelling justifies the epic length. Despite the stacked-deck that confounds them at every turn, Jitney's characters never give up, and in the end are rewarded for their faith and understanding. It runs through May 11th. 303-893-4100.