Thursday, March 12, 2020

“Jitney” – Theater At The Top Of Its Game

A moment from Jitney (Joan Marcus)

Seattle Repertory Theatre
Suspended for the time being

I know. This is a time of uncertainty and now many theaters are announcing temporary closures. This includes the touring production of Jitney by August Wilson, now presenting at Seattle Repertory Theatre. Since it is a tour and all the personnel have traveled here, it’s unknown if the production can be continued in a few weeks or not. Having said that, it is one of the finest productions you’ll see in a long time.

The evening is a master class in directing by Ruben Santiago-Hudson! Each moment has been considered and planned. Each of the many actors performs at the top of his (similar to many Wilson plays, this one only has one woman in it) game. All the subtle humor is teased out and gifted to the audience.

The beautifully rendered set by David Gallo displays the rundown building housing the jitney “car service” where these men constantly come and go while giving rides to predominantly Black folks who were not served by the cab companies. The panoramic windows are lit gorgeously through time changes by designer Jane Cox. Fashions of 1977 float through on the characters as designed by Toni-Leslie James. And underscoring scenes with original music by Bill Sims Jr. helps fill in the rich soundscape.

This production is a tour of the Broadway presentation that opened in 2017. While Jitney has been done on many stages, including the Rep’s in the early 2000’s, it had never had a Broadway production until 2017. Many of the touring actors were on stage on Broadway for that limited run.

Wilson, in his ten-play American Century Cycle, wrote slices of life. His plays were some of the first on major national stages to exalt the unseen man, the forgotten folk most often on the bottom rung of society, and to shine a light on Black culture.

One of the most salient features of this play is that every single character, no matter how small, has a full backstory, a full life. A genius ability to create dialogue that flows exactly like “real life,” means that there is no exposition, really. The details crack out of the dialogue from arguing, joking, remembering.

In a conversation about “who the protagonist is,” as some might love to discuss about plays, various characters were suggested as the main character for whom the plot revolves around and who must make a significant change during the course of the play.

It could be Becker, the proprietor, who has to decide whether to continue his jitney service somehow when the City decides to condemn his rotting building. It could be Becker’s son, fresh out of prison, who has to decide how to reenter society. It could be Youngblood, the hustling young man trying to buy a house in secret from his girlfriend, and who must learn to communicate better to be a better partner.

But contributing an altogether excellent perspective, theater veteran and arts official at the City of Seattle, Kathy Hsieh, suggested that rather than any individual, August Wilson wrote about “a community of people, because I would say that the antagonist in this and all of the 10-play Cycle is our structurally racist society and what Wilson explores are the very different ways in which individuals in the Black community deal with and try to rise above their circumstances.

“That they are not a monolithic community as defined by white people, but each character is human in their own right and none can be defined by a single stereotype. Only when we can see the individual humanity of each person, will we start to evolve forward as a society.”

The play stars Francois Battiste (Booster), Harvy Blanks (Shealy), Amari Cheatom (Youngblood), Anthony Chisholm (Fielding), Brian D. Coats (Philmore), Steven Anthony Jones (Becker), Nija Okoro (Rena), Keith Randolph Smith (Doub), and Ray Anthony Thomas (Turnbo). They are all a joy to watch. Listen, also, for vocal changes and “tricks” that emphasize the character and even enhance the humor.

It is my hope that you get to see this top-notch production and that scheduling changes can be made for that! For more information, go to or call 206-443-2222.

No comments:

Post a Comment

This is a moderated comment section. Any comment can be deleted if the moderator feels that basic civility standards are not being met. Disagreements, however, if respectfully stated, are certainly welcome. Just keep the discussion intelligent and relatively kind.