Jitney at Penumbra Theatre

Abdul Salaam El Razzac in Jitney. Photo by Allen Weeks.

Abdul Salaam El Razzac in Jitney. Photo by Allen Weeks.

August Wilson’s plays are not slice of life dramas with straight-as-a-knife plotlines. They embody broad swaths of Black history played out decade by decade. Jitney, now at Penumbra Theatre, is no exception. Set in the 1970’s, Wilson employs gossip, personal histories and individual aspirations to condense a decade of black American experience into a formidable story.

‘Jitney’ is slang for a cheap, often unlicensed, taxi cab. In the play, Jitney, frustrations and aspirations abound for the owner and the drivers of a Pittsburgh, cut-rate taxi service as word comes that their building is soon to be torn down in the name of urban renewal. No one on stage believes that anything will rise on their soon to be empty plot of land as they site numerous examples of other teardowns that remain vacant lots.

Wilson’s plays offer ensemble acting opportunity at its best. Penumbra’s cast is packed with experienced actors, many of whom are familiar to audiences here, and all have experience with Wilson’s plays. It is no wonder that nuanced performances abound. I offer just two examples. In act one, James Craven, as Becker, the business’s owner/manager, changes the atmosphere of a scene just by the way he crosses from upstage center to downstage right without speaking a single word to his son. Later Abdul Salaam El Razzac, as Doub, skillfully emphasizes a statement by the simple way he puts down a deck of cards.

Complicating the plot Becker’s son, Booster, gets released from prison. Played by James T. Alfred the prodigal son has the watchful eyes and demeanor of a man whose long pent-up emotions are ready to explode, the only question is in what direction. Searching for a ride home, T. Michael Rambo as the inebriated Philmore (a part he shares with Ahanti Young) stumbles down the steps into the Car Service office in a way that makes you fear he will break his neck. Jasmine Hughes as Rena sports a period correct Afro hairdo and projects both intimacy with her partner the driver Darnell “Youngblood” Williams (ably and enjoyably played by Darrick Mosley) and motherly concern for her son.

Terry Bellamy as Turnbo, another taxi driver, could perhaps ground his constant baiting of coworkers with a little more depth. As it is, it’s difficult to tell if his need to stir up controversy comes out of pleasure, resentment, or boredom. Though he certainly embodies the part physically. He walks like a man who has spent too much time behind the wheel of a cab. His character adds a touch of necessary humor to many scenes as when he demands to know why Lena Horne is thought to be beautiful and a good singer when Sarah Vaughn is so much better on both counts.

Kevin D. West as the flashy numbers man Shealy and Marcus Naylor as Fielding round out the talented cast. Naylor’s character switches from drunk in one scene to sober in the next with believable ease and perfect timing. He is new to Twin Cities theatre and hopefully we will see more of him.

Director Lou Bellamy is one of Wilson’s primary interpreters and the founder of Penumbra. Because of Wilson’s ambition to relate the substantial story of the black experience in America his plays can seem to meander at times but not in these capable hands. This is theatre at its fullest.

One final note: Penumbra is currently celebrating its 40th year with the motto, “Still We Rise.” This renowned theatre, known throughout the United States as a premier interpreter of the African American experience, has good reason to celebrate.

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