Jitney Theatre Review - August Wilson’s Jackpot of a Jalopy Jaunts into Orange County

Youngblood (Larry Bates) romances Rena (Kristy Johnson)

(Costa Mesa, CA) May 19, 2012 – Creative genius always has to begin somewhere. For August Wilson, the architect of his magnum opus “The Ten-Play Pittsburgh Cycle”, it all began in 1979 when he wrote JITNEY, a little theatrical gem about a makeshift cab company composed of privately owned gypsy cabs (called jitneys) and their drivers who try to survive and thrive in a run-down Pittsburgh slum that is considered a prison to some and a sanctuary for others.  Although it never had a Broadway run, JITNEY received critical acclaim in regional theatres nationwide. And when his other classics MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM, JOE TURNER’S COME AND GONE, and FENCES (which garnered one of Wilson’s two Pulitzer Prizes in Drama) came into the light and won their well-deserved accolades, Wilson harnesed his uncanny abilities to capture the microcosm of African American culture within various eras of American history as though he were a literary photographer. As far as JITNEY is concerned, South Coast Repertory has chosen a perfectly dynamic way to end their 2011-2012 season, courtesy of a top-notch cast, led by SCR vet Charlie Robinson.

Philmore (Gregg Daniel) shares some news with Shealy (Rolando Boyce)

It’s early fall of 1977, and times are indeed changing for Becker’s (Charlie Robinson) jitney cab company, who for almost 20 years has provided convenient and economical car service for the residents of the Pittsburgh Hill District. But ironically enough, it’s his own drivers that test Becker’s weathered patience, not the passengers whose personalities range from the wildly eccentric to the “economically negligent”, including the harried Philmore (an endearing Gregg Daniel). There’s the elder driver Fielding (David McKnight), whose alcoholism slowly brings him to ruin---professionally, personally and creatively---with each passing day. The multi-tasking Shealy (Rolando Boyce) is trying to bring extra income by running a numbers racket, using Becker’s station as his base of operations. The “youngblood” driver and Vietnam vet Darnell (Larry Bates) is planning tirelessly to save money to buy a house for his high school sweetheart Rena (a radiant and tender-hearted Kristy Johnson) and their two-year-old son, as well as trying to prove to his beloved that he has left behind his partying ways. But the gossiping curmudgeon Turnbo (Ellis E. Williams) makes life difficult for the young driver, as well as everyone else, when he can’t keep his nose out of everyone’s personal business, resulting in some potentially volatile situations between the drivers. And then there’s the wise Korean War veteran Doub (James A. Watson, Jr.), the most calm and level-headed out of all Becker’s drivers, who worries not only about the possible closure of the cab station, but also for the emotional well-being of his boss when it is discovered that Becker’s son Booster (Montae Russell) is being released from prison after serving twenty years for murder. Will this early release bring more chaos to Becker’s life and the cab station, or will it create a more optimistic outlook in more ways than the drivers realize? 

Becker (Charlie Robinson) learns about his son's release from prison

In 1996, Wilson had the opportunity to revise and expand JITNEY, especially certain key scenes that involved Becker and his son, and the young lovers Darnell and Rena. But this expanded revision doesn’t take away from his lyrical dialogue and his ever-evolving characters. Although running two hours and ten minutes, Wilson’s lightning prose and Ron OJ Parson’s smooth direction keep the show running at a fast pace as though the audience was riding as a passenger inside one of Becker’s neighborhood jitneys. And the 70’s setting is recreated to perfection courtesy of Shaun Motley’s set, Vincent Olivieri’s sound design, and especially Dana Rebecca Woods’s costuming (The plaid pants!! Heaven help me, I’ve gone blind!).   

Turnbo (Ellis E. Williams, center) tells a tale to Fielding (David McKnight, left) and Doub (James A. Watson, Jr., right)

However, it’s the cast which drives this theatrical car home to roost. Robinson and Russell provide the emotional foundation of the play as father and son. Robinson’s Becker is the true patriarchal center of the jitney company. He exudes patience, good-natured understanding, laid-back humor and especially a powerful sense of authority when chaos disrupts his professional home. Robinson also reveals a broken-hearted despair regarding the disgrace his own son’s crime brings to him, which has resulted in the death of Becker’s first wife. When Robinson’s Becker cuts off Booster from his life at the end of a phenomenal Act One, he does so not to be cold-hearted, but out of self-preservation. And his profound performance is wonderfully matched by Russell’s Booster, whose own angry pride in justifying his murderous actions during his youth becomes transformed in such vibrant ways that it becomes a true testament to his craft as a talented actor.

Becker (Charlie Robinson, left) confronts his son Booster (Montae Russell)

The performances by the supporting actors complete the theatrical tableau like a colorful mosaic. Bates’ Darnell is an energetic, full-of-vinegar young buck whose well-intentions are flawed by his benign lack of organizational skills, and his chemistry with Johnson’s Rena is truly electrifying. McKnight shows considerable pathos and quiet humor with his flawed Fielding. Williams’ Turnbo steals many scenes with his timely sense of humor, which is laced with a type of dark intensity that his masterful transitions from one emotional extreme to another are truly frightening. And yet, during these uncomfortable moments, Williams’ charm maintains Turnbo’s likability. It’s a delicate balancing act, and he performs it beautifully. Boyce is hilarious as the ambitious Shealy, and Watson Jr.’s empathetic Doub provides much needed stability to the station when Becker is dealing with his own personal problems.

Thanks to this flawless cast, JITNEY helps guide a theatrical motorcade called the South Coast Repertory 2011/2012 Season into the sunset, preparing this company for another potentially exciting year of ground-breaking theater in Orange County.    


Jitney opened May 11 and runs to June 10

South Coast Repertory

655 Town Center Drive

Costa Mesa, CA 92628-2197


Tickets: $20-$66

Photos by: Photo by Henry DiRocco/SCR

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