Court Theatre’s JITNEY Is Vibrant, Rich & Neuanced

REVIEWED BY MELODY UDELL:

During the Court Theatre’s production of August Wilson’s Jitney, about a well-worn community of gypsy cab drivers servicing the black community in 1977 Pittsburgh, you’ll notice the first stand-out element of the play before the stage lights even come on. Jack Magaw’s spot-on set design is full of nuance and rich detail — his imagining of a scrappy car service station sets the realistic tone for the rest of the play. 

Jitney is a vibrant piece of Wilson’s ten-play body of work chronicling the black experience in America. The play revolves around an enterprising cast of characters supplementing their income by using their own cars as unofficial, tax-free cabs. Becker (A.C. Smith), a well-respected retired steel-mill employee, does his best to maintain an honorable, competitive car service, even though his drivers have their own fair share of issues. There’s Youngblood (Kamal Angelo Bolden), a 24-year-old Vietnam vet with a short fuse and a debilitating amount of pride; Turnbo (Allen Gilmore), an aging troublemaker who can’t stop meddling; Fielding (Alfred Wilson), a self-aware alcoholic; and the wise, dependable Doub (Cedric Young), the most sensible of the group. Despite their descriptions, each character gets their own moments of development during the two-and-a-half-hour long show — thankfully, no one is left purely one-dimensional.

Serving as the central plot point, Becker and company are faced with tough decisions when the city announces their building will be demolished for urban development. Tempers flare as the drivers talk about finding a new hub, fighting the government-issued ordinance or simply shutting down service entirely. To complicate matters, Becker’s son, Booster — enigmatically played by Anthony Fleming III — returns home after spending 20 years in prison for murder. 

The show’s dialogue flows fast and smooth, especially during a post-prison confrontation between Booster and Becker, whose commanding on-stage presence is a major asset to the show. Their argument alternates swiftly between near violence and crushing emotional heft. “I stopped asking God questions because I realized the answers don’t matter.”

Yet amid all the chaos and emotional upheaval, the show makes room for some genuinely funny, touching moments. After an argument between the hot-headed Youngblood and his girlfriend, Rena (smartly played by Caren Blackmore), the couple decide to stop working against each other and start working together. Their ability to forgive and forge ahead is what truly propels Jitney to a place of pragmatic realism — where there’s misery, there’s usually some semblance of hope.

The characters in the play, whether struggling with their own internal demons or fraught relationships with each other, prove that life can’t always be what you make of it. Sooner or later, something unexpected will get in the way. But it’s how we deal with those moments of unexpectedness that prepare us for the road ahead. The show sums it up with a few of the final words: “You don’t always have the kind of life you dreamed about.” But August Wilson knows there’s not much we can do but try.

Jitney plays through Sunday, Oct. 14, 5535 S. Ellis Ave., Chicago. Wednesday and Thursday evenings at 7:30 p.m., Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.

To purchase tickets, call 773-753-4472 or courttheatre.org.