ST. PETERSBURG — All but one of August Wilson's "Century Cycle" plays are set in Pittsburgh's Hill District, where the playwright grew up. All 10 of the plays, one for each decade of the 20th century, are populated with African-American characters.
A keen sense of place and nine rich, accessible characters make Jitney, set in 1977 and the eighth play in the cycle (but one of the first Wilson wrote), entertaining and worthwhile. American Stage is one of the few theaters in the country to commit to producing all 10 plays, itself an unprecedented project. Wilson completed the last of the cycle plays, Radio Golf, in 2005, the same year he died at age 60.
The setting, the dingy office of a gypsy cab company, takes the audience into a world few other playwrights, if any, have traversed. Motor oil signs from the decade suffice for decoration. A battered tile floor has jagged pieces missing. Becker, the company's boss and consummate adult in the room (Mujahid Abdul-Rashid), makes do with a bare metal desk that is as unpretentious, even cold, as the man behind it. Scenic designer Scott Cooper has followed Wilson's instructions, and then some.
Directed by L. Peter Callender, the artistic director of San Francisco's African-American Shakespeare Company, Jitney at American Stage is like soul food, nourishing and a bit of an acquired taste for some.
But once you get it, you get it.
The jitney drivers include a former tailor with an alcohol problem; a Vietnam vet with an anger problem; the vet's fiance, who wants to settle down; a Korean war vet who has learned how to survive; and a numbers runner whose wide lapels and platform heels match the 1970s R&B and soul soundtrack between scenes.
Around and between them all is Turnbo, who seeds the office with self-serving gossip. This kind of Iago requires a fine casting choice, and Callender has made one in Kim Sullivan. The best-dressed character in the play (his three-piece suit stands comically apart from the knockaround attire of his co-workers), Turnbo drives every conflict in the play. He is a hard man and his duplicity transparent. Still, he wins more than he loses.
The deepest conflicts center on Becker, who is carrying an insurmountable weight. The city will soon knock down the building to make way for new development. He could go back to the mill where he worked 27 years, or try to start afresh in a gentrifying district. Deeper than all of that, his son, Booster, has been released from prison after serving 20 years for murder.
When Booster stops by the cab company to see his father, the moments between them make for the play's finest. Abdul-Rashid is the kind of actor who can drive 80 in a 70 mph zone (not 110 or 40) and get away with it. I don't know that I have seen a disappointed father and his son played more powerfully.
"I'm a deacon down at the church," Becker says. "Got me a little house. … I got respect. I can walk anywhere and hold my head up high. What I ain't got is a son that did me honor."
That said, Adrian Roberts as Booster does not match that level of intensity. Perhaps he was going for a muted and saddened wisdom acquired during incarceration, and so played it down. I'm not sure that works.
There is humor and heart in Jitney, and some surprises too. Wilson's work speaks to characters of all races who are seldom seen but should be. As the playwright once said, he did not write for black or white audiences but about the black experience.
"And contained within that experience," Wilson said, "because it is a human experience, are all universalities."
Contact Andrew Meacham at email@example.com or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.