A wild joyride in August Wilson’s taxicab

Portland Playhouse's 'Jitney,' part of Wilson's 20th century cycle, gets a top-flight turn

When Vin Shambry as the prodigal son Booster strides in the door after spending 20 years in the state penitentiary for murder, the brightly chattering music in the offices of his father’s gypsy cab company transforms. What had been a loose and lively if tightly structured jazz funk stops and rethinks itself, diving deeper and stretching farther into the unknown. Shambry’s tone is something new and game-changing in Portland Playhouse’s rich and rewarding new production of August Wilson’s play Jitney: a whispering yet quietly commanding and astonished sound that shifts the conversation in a way that Charlie Parker or Ornette Coleman’s arrival on the scene must have shaken up the jazz worlds of their day. From this point, things change.

Roy B. Ayers, Mujahid Abdul-Rashid, and Rodney Hicks. Photo: Brud Giles

Roy B. Ayers, Mujahid Abdul-Rashid, and Rodney Hicks. Photo: Brud Giles

And as with so many revolutions, what’s new is also steeped in the memory and example of what’s old. In a contemporary theater world that’s turned largely to small chamber ensembles and virtuoso solo turns, the late August Wilson wrote symphonic plays: big, sprawling pieces that sweep over an audience in recurring waves and encompass whole worlds, yet are also, in their particulars, intensely personal and intimate. His soundtrack may be blues or jazz or funk rather than 19th century orchestral Viennese, but both the structure and the ambition of his plays declare a large and probing mind, addressing the contemporary world with a deep understanding of the masterworks and failures of the past.

Jitney is the latest of Wilson’s ten-play cycle to hit the Portland stage: each play is set in a different decade of the 20th century, and together they weave a complex tapestry of African American life. Performed in the expansive bandbox of the Winningstad Theatre downtown, it’s both familiar and fresh. It takes place, once again, in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, the black part of town, this time in the 1970s, when the culture remains vibrant but the buildings are run down and developers are just about to swing the wrecking ball. Jitney has recurring motifs – a sense of fatalism, the struggle between working hard and giving in, the adaptations of (mostly) male characters to stunted circumstances, what it means to be black and barely visible in a white-run culture, a titanic struggle between a father and a son – but also hopefulness amid the dread. In this, too, Wilson was something of a classicist: his plays can be scathingly satiric in flashes, but they’re also dead-on serious. There wasn’t an ironic or flippant bone in his body.

Jitney is also deeply, pleasurably funny – or maybe humorous is a better word: it has its laugh lines, but its humor is mainly a matter of mood and sensibility, an integral element in a larger dramatic arc. Wilson, who died at age 60 from liver cancer in 2005, was a natural-born and meticulously self-created storyteller. As dark and classically tragic as they can be, his plays revel in the loose and rhythmic and often joyous poetics of black America. The people he wrote about aren’t archetypes, but they fit their ensembles like specific instruments, circling around and playing off of each other. In a play as musical as Jitney, weight and timbre and balance matter deeply, and director G. Valmont Thomas, familiar to a lot of theatergoers from his several seasons as an actor at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, has made brilliant use of varying voices: Mujahid Abdul-Rashid’s soft and steady bass as the old-timer Doub; Victor Mack’s sardonically volatile tenor sax as the combustible Turnbo; Wrick Jones’s muted trumpet as the sweet but alcoholic Fielding (Jones also starred as the flammable trumpeter Levee in Storefront Theatre’s groundbreaking Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, which introduced Portland audiences to Wilson’s plays more than a quarter-century ago); Rodney Hicks’s quicksilver but rooted drumming as the aptly named (and impressively Afro’d) Youngblood; Ashley Williams’ tart vocal riffs as no-nonsense Rena. This is a top-flight cast. And holding it all together, the pianist/leader capable of startling solo turns, is Kevin Kenerly (another leading Oregon Shakespeare Festival performer) as Becker, who runs the gypsy cab business, and on whom everyone else relies. Kenerly takes on a few years and a lot of cares here, stooping beneath the weight of broken hopes and an untenable situation. He feels small and drab (Shambry, as his son, Booster, towers over him), and yet his quiet power and dignity, grown so brittle that they might break, are discernible to everyone. It’s a remarkable performance. His music is discordant and elegant; on the beat and off the tracks. It quickens everything.

Issues of gentrification are in the background of Jitney. The shabby building where the cab company operates is scheduled to be torn down for redevelopment, and the black businesses – many of them, like the jitney shop, operating unofficially in the underground economy – will soon be out on the street. Becker struggles with what to do: fight city hall and the developers, move somewhere else, give up? What makes it even more frustrating is that it’s stupid redevelopment: the buildings will be razed and the land left vacant, waiting until the economy ticks up enough to justify building something new. The issue’s significant for Portland Playhouse, whose home space is a former African American church building in what used to be a black neighborhood of Northeast Portland.

But gentrification is less important to the play than the texture of the place and time and people, and as usual, Wilson memorializes them brilliantly. Jitney is about things disintegrating, but it’s also about hope and second chances, themes that are carried out in several ways but most potently in the strained relationship between Becker and Booster. It’s about the difference between bending and breaking, and what strength means, and forgiveness, and even love. By coincidence I’d just finished reading Chinua Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart before I went to opening night of Jitney on Saturday, and the tragedy of the Ibo warrior Okonkwo, who was so strong that he couldn’t adjust to a changing world, reverberated in my mind. What do we teach our offspring, and how does the child become the man?

Jitney, which Wilson wrote in 1979, is less well-known than such hits as Fences, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, Two Trains Running, and The Piano Lesson: It’s the only one of his plays never to have had a Broadway run, though it won the Olivier Award for its London run at the National Theatre. It also has an unusual history, essentially premiering twice: first in Pittsburgh in 1982, and then, after being stuck away in a drawer for several years and eventually rewritten extensively, in 1996, again in Pittsburgh. The result is a smooth, accomplished, powerful script – not at all a weak link in the 20th century cycle, only a less familiar one, and so less likely to be produced. What sticks with me, as with all of Wilson’s plays, no matter what discordant or tragic notes they might sound, is the sheer joy it takes in the telling of its tale. I could quibble here and there (on opening night, I thought, the final scene was rushed and not fleshed out), but in the face of such a sterling achievement, quibbling seems a little silly. This is a fine production of a fine and important play, and – who knows? – you might not get a chance to see another Jitney, or a better one even if you do. Best get to this one while you can.

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Jitney continues through February 16 in the Dolores Winningstad Theatre. Schedule and ticket information here

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One Response.

  1. Cynthia Kirk says:

    Vin Shambry: I’ve been wondering where he was. I guess I’ll get to the Winningstad to find out. Thanks, Bob!

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