COURTESY THE ACTORS' GROUP
Christopher B. Smith, as Shealy, left, Derrick Brown as Turnbo and Billy Hall as Booster star in "Jitney," a play by August Wilson that depicts life in the 1970s for African Americans. "Jitney" is staged by The Actors' Group.
‘Jitney’ troubles transcend race
"Black history" happens every day of the year, but because February is designated as Black History Month, The Actors' Group's annual presentation of a play from August Wilson's "Pittsburgh Cycle" is timely, as well as being welcome in its own right.
Presented by The Actors' Group:
On stage: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, and 4 p.m. Sundays, through March 4
Place: Yellow Brick Studio, 625 Keawe St.
Call: 550-8475 or visit honoluluboxoffice.com
Wilson's "Cycle" covers a century of the African-American experience in Pittsburgh with a separate free-standing play for each decade. "Jitney," set in 1977, takes place in the office of a jitney cab company scheduled for destruction for the sake of urban renewal. (Director/actor Derrick Brown explains in the program notes that jitneys are unmetered cabs that charge a flat rate based on distance traveled.)
Becker (Jim Andrews), owner of the stand, and Turnbo (Derrick Brown), a driver, are the central characters, although their relationship is only one of several in this fascinating story.
Becker is a dignified and principled man, retired from a factory job, who expects his drivers to keep their cars clean, stay sober, and treat their fares in a courteous and professional manner. Becker has made his peace with the world in every area of his life except one -- his relationship with his son, Booster (Billy Hall), who is nearing the end of a 20-year prison term for murder.
Turnbo is a full-time loudmouth who always has time to stick his nose into other people's business. Brown's animated performance and energetic delivery quickly made Turnbo an audience favorite at the performance last Saturday.
The other drivers are "wunzas" (as in "one's a Korean war vet, one's a ..."), but each is vividly drawn and effectively portrayed by the talented ensemble. Doub (Raymond J. Griffin Jr.), a middle-aged Korean war veteran, is the voice of wisdom and well-worn experience; Doub tells a younger man that "the white man ain't against you -- the white man doesn't know you alive."
Fielding (Gregory Scott Harris) is of similar age but with limited prospects; he's an alcoholic whose drinking cost him a lucrative career as a tailor and now threatens his job at the jitney stand.
Youngblood (F. Quenton Collins) is a Vietnam vet struggling to make a better life for his upwardly mobile girlfriend, Rena (Kesha Diodato), and their young son, but who encounters one obstacle after another.
Christopher B. Smith (Shealy) completes the excellent ensemble cast as a numbers runner who uses the jitney office telephone.
Most of the pivotal moments occur as isolated conversations between characters. One of the most powerful is a confrontation between Youngblood and Rena about the direction of their relationship. Collins' performance suggests that Rena's concerns may be valid even as he is earning Youngblood our sympathy. The oft-heard complaint that a black man's best efforts are never good enough for some black women rings loud and clear here.
Playwright Wilson transcends race with his examination of the fractured relationship between Becker and his son. "What are you going to do with your life, now that you've ruined it?" Becker demands angrily. Booster later makes a disturbingly convincing argument that it is better to go to prison -- or even to be executed -- for something you did than for something you didn't do.
Andrews is excellent throughout and makes Becker the foundation of the story. The confrontations between him and his son are powerful and effective theater.