By Kay Kipling
Much as I appreciate Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe’s musical shows, I always look forward to it when they tackle dramas, especially when the dramas are by Pulitzer Prize winner August Wilson. The company has presented Wilson’s The Piano Lesson and Fences in the past; now onstage is their production of his earlier play, Jitney, which takes place in 1977 in the playwright’s native Pittsburgh.
It’s not his most compelling work, but it’s still strong enough to command attention. The setting is a rundown taxi office in the Hill district of the city. Licensed cabbies won’t travel to the area, which is predominantly African-American and also plagued with boarded-up or torn-down buildings in a questionable program of urban rehabilitation. So the drivers here pick up some money by answering the frequently ringing telephone and providing their services to those in the neighborhood without transportation.
Those drivers can be a quarrelsome lot. There’s bad blood between Vietnam vet Youngblood (Will Little) and the meddling Turnbo (Horace Smith), who constantly protests that he’s not getting into anyone else’s business even as he constantly does. Youngblood is also having trouble with his girlfriend, Rena (Dhakeria Cunningham), who suspects he’s fooling around with her sister. Fielding (Ron Bobb-Semple) is amiable enough, but his drinking problem tries the patience of the station’s manager, Becker (Alfred H. Wilson), who is also facing trouble with the return of his son, Booster (Don Laurin Johnson), just released from 20 years in prison.
Throw in a slick bookmaker (Andrew Drake), who uses the station’s phone for his own enterprise, the older and wiser Doub (Steven McKenzy) and a customer with his own marital issues (Martin Taylor), and you’ve got a lot of coming and going inside those faded green walls.
Much of it is comic, especially in the first half. But as we learn more about the relationship between Becker and his son, and between Youngblood and Rena, there are moments that tear at the heart, too.
Under the direction of Jim Weaver, the cast is mostly able to reach us at both levels. Occasionally the dialogue may be shouted too loudly or a line might be indistinguishable because uttered too rapidly. The play itself meanders a bit, with the conversations sometimes feeling repetitive. And the ending, although not unexpected, comes too abruptly to have its maximum impact.
But it’s a worthwhile effort by WBTT; one hopes to see more Wilson work in future seasons. For tickets, call 366-1505 or to go wbttsrq.org.