Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Jitney's Relevant Ride



Written by August Wilson
April 1–16, 2017
African-American Shakespeare Company
Marines’ Memorial Theatre
609 Sutter Street, 2nd Floor
San Francisco, CA, 94102

Reviewed by Christine Okon

As the audience gets settled, Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” fills the Marine Memorial theater and then picks up on a small tinny radio in the shabby office of Becker’s Car Service, the single setting for August Wilson’s play Jitney. This play, part of Wilson’s Century Cycle of theater works charting the black experience over the decades, takes place in 1977 in a Pittsburgh neighborhood beyond the usual (i.e. white) taxi service range, thus filling a much needed niche.

ShawnJ West (Turnbo), Jonathan Smothers (Doub) and L. Peter Callender (Becker) Photo credit: Lance Huntley

The small office (true to Wilson’s precise stage description, thanks to Kevin August Landesman) holds many layers of stories: of the men who come and go to take turns picking up the ringing payphone to take a ride request, but also of the faceless vortex of “urban renewal” that is shuttering the neighborhood businesses, one by one. Yet Becker’s Car Service still stands.

ShawnJ West (Turnbo) and Edward Neville Ewell (Youngblood) Photo credit: Lance Huntley

Wilson’s characters are rich, complex, delightful and engaging in and of themselves, but the magic is in their interaction. We first meet Youngblood, perfectly named for his youth and passion and impatience, and Turnbo, the middle-aged male biddy who insists he “ain’t getting in your business” although that is what he is exactly doing. They are playing checkers, one of those games passed down over generations as a sort of rite of passage. It’s the closest thing an ordinary man comes to being a king. ShawnJ West’s Turnbo taps an inner gossipy and signifying trickster who knows it all and does get in your face. And Edward Neville Ewell fills out Youngblood with the swagger and energetic optimism of a kid trying to navigate the transition between adolescent impulsiveness and adult responsibilities, made even more urgent by the fact that he is a father of two-year-old boy.

Fred Pitts (Shealy) Photo credit: Lance Huntley
Soon we meet the other drivers, each with their distinct personalities. Shealy, the likable and super-fly neighborhood bookie (Fred Pitt, sporting a yellow oversize cap and flashy clothes, thanks to costume designer Nikki-Anderson Joy's grasp of 70’s polyester and plaid fashion fun). There's also really great soul/funk/R&B music throughout the play.

We meet Fielding, a tall, nattily dressed gentleman (played with a sweet vulnerability by Trevor Nigel Lawrence) barely hiding the effects of “just another nip” which fools only himself as he says “You gotta have someone to depend on.” The steady and thoughtful Korean War veteran Doub (played solidly by Jonathan Smothers, but cast a bit too young for the part) speaks little, but when he does, reveals how hard it is to become inured to the horrors of war. Philmore (Gift Harris) contributes his diligent perspective of being someone who’s never missed a day of work, and Rena (Jemier Jenkins) is the solid and loving rock that helps guide her lover Youngblood to become the man she needs for herself and their baby son, if they are to have a future.

But the strong center, the voice of reason, and the icon of respect is Becker, played by L Peter Callendar, who also directed the play. Callendar’s Becker commands the office chaos like Prospero; it is a treat to experience his range of intensity in such scenes as when he schools Youngblood after a fight with Turnbo (“He just young and foolish. I’ll straighten him up. He just young. He don’t know no better.”)

ShawnJ West (Turnbo), L. Peter Callender (Becker), and Edward Neville Ewell (Youngblood) Photo credit: Lance Huntley

Everything is going relatively smoothly until we learn that Becker’s son “Booster” (a capable but somewhat subdued Eric Reid) is being released from a 20-year stint in prison. Booster is a huge disappointment for Becker in that he ends the continuity of the dignified and rule-based life that Becker believes could lead to advancement. Like Lear, Becker armors his grief with stubbornness. Becker and Booster are exploding with a love that can only be expressed as rage and hurt. Scenes between Becker and Booster are heartbreaking to the point of tears, as the audience yearns for them to connect.

Eric Reid (Booster), L. Peter Callender (Becker), Photo credit: Lance Huntley

In the larger scheme of things, the real challenge is choosing to act, or not. With the community being steamrolled by “them” -–the unseen “powers that be” that create, as they have always created, powerlessness—Becker decides to keep the car service going and rallies the team, a band of brothers, to pitch in. They will join other shop owners facing the same fate of closure. Even with Becker gone, the team continues his spirit despite having no guaranteed outcome.

The story of Jitney is relevant now as so many small arts groups are struggling with funding cuts and threats to culture by the “forces that be.” The African American Shakespeare Company, having been based for years on Fulton St., needs a new home and much support. The company is also no longer able to provide free performances to hundreds of Bay Area high school students who must first experience the arts before they can protect them.

What choice do we have but to work with each other to change the tide that will lift all boats?


Written by August Wilson
African American Shakespeare Company
April 1 to April 16, 2017

Director: L. Peter Callender
Production Manager: Leontyne Mbele-Mbong
Stage Manager: Brian Snow
Set Designer: Kevin August Landesman
Technical Director: Roger Chapman
Lighting Designer: Kevin Myrick
Sound Designer: True Siller
Costume Designer: Nikki Anderson-Joy
Props Designer: Devon LaBelle
Assistant Director, Jemier Jenkins

Becker: L. Peter Callender
Turnbo: ShawnJ West
Youngblood: Edward Neville Ewell
Fielding: Trevor Nigel Lawrence
Doub: Jonathan Smothers
Shealy: Fred Pitts
Booster: Eric Reid
Rena: Jemier Jenkins
Philmore: Gift Harris

African-American Shakespeare
African-American Shakespeare
762 Fulton Street, Suite 306
San Francisco, CA 94102
(415) 762-2071

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