Ticket to Ride: ‘Jitney’ at Af-Am Shakes

Jitney at Af-Am Shakes - programme

“Blues is the bedrock of everything I do. All the characters in my plays, their ideas and their attitudes, the stance that they adopt in the world, are all ideas and attitudes that are expressed in the blues. If all this were to disappear off the face of the earth and some people two million unique years from now would dig out this civilization and come across some blues records, working as anthropologists, they would be able to piece together who these people were, what they thought about, what their ideas and attitudes toward pleasure and pain were, all of that. All the components of culture.”
– August Wilson, interview with The Believer, Nov. 2004

It took me a minute to get used to the sight of the African-American Shakespeare Co. program in my hand when I didn’t see stage of the Burial Clay Theatre when I looked up. After more than a decade of performances in the heart of The Fillmore, the company had to pack its bags last year. Outside of auditions, I never got the opportunity to take to that stage, but knowing Af-Am Shakes is still able to put on performances is enough to sustain me for now. As theatre companies continue to vanish from my hometown – and as our new spray-tanned Crook-in-Chief threatens to slit the throat of the National Endowment for the Arts – companies like this take on greater significance.

And what better way to kick off their new incarnation than with a Black-American playwright who – like Arthur Miller, to whom he’s frequently compared – is often named as possibly being THE Great American Playwright: August Wilson. With last year’s film adaptation of Fences having shown the world how great a voice we lost with his death, now is a great time for modern audiences to (re)discover one of the great authors of the American stage.

And what better way to relate to contemporary audiences than with a classic tale about a ride-sharing service?

Regular taxis won’t drive to won’t pick up Pittsburgh’s Black residents or drive to their neighborhoods. That’s why Becker runs his own jitney service catering to a clientele that otherwise wouldn’t get around as easily. With employees just as colorful as the passengers they pick up, Becker’s office seems to have never known a dull moment.

That was before today. When he isn’t struggling to keep his employees in line (and trying to stop them from killing one another), there are two things weighing on Becker’s mind. The first is the seemingly inevitable time when the city shuts down his business and takes over the building. The other is the reappearance of his only son.

As much as I like Jitney, it’s never been my favorite Wilson piece. There are just a couple things that don’t work for me: some bits of dialogue feel overly expository; and the climax always felt a bit rushed. Still a good play full of realistic characters, but just not one of the great author’s absolute best works.

Still, as directed by L. Peter Callender (Af-Am Shakes’ Artistic Director, who also stars as Becker), this production mostly plays to the play’s strengths. With most of the characters constantly coming and going – this play could compete with Noises Off! for the sheer number of entrances and exits – each one has to leave an impression. While some (like Fred Pitt’s peacocking hustler Shealy) are clearly more memorable than others, none of them were interchangeable, and all are given the opportunity to shine.

This includes Callender himself. I’m always weary of any show in which the director also stars in a major role. As a director myself, I’d never do it for the sake of objectivity. What’s more, one of the worst productions in which I’ve ever been cast was a trainwreck of a show wherein the director had an incredibly vital role. To Callender’s credit, his self-casting appears to be more about having the chance to “sing” the words of an author who always compared his own scripts to jazz pieces. And he “sings” it masterfully.

Speaking of music, the collection of ‘70s hits put together for the show is the sort of thing I’d want in the background of whatever job I had (even though it contains the anachronistic “More Bounce to the Ounce”). Sound designer True Siller’s noises – most notably, the near-constant ringing phone – serve the production well. Kevin Landesman and Devon LaBelle’s set makes great use of the open space of the Marines Memorial Theatre, and although some lighting shifts come when they aren’t needed, Kevin Myrick’s lights create the right mood. One can only imagine the conversations that took place when Nikki Anderson-Joy first placed Fred Pitts in his Huggy Bear-esque threads.

Jitney was always meant to be a small-scale story. It isn’t about characters trying to move mountains or reset the course of rivers; it’s about characters who, like the clients they serve, are trying to get from Point-A to Point-B. That sort of journey never sounds exciting at first, but the people with whom you take the journey make all the difference. Having left its longtime home, Af-Am Shakes is also on the move. Although it’s hard to say where they ultimately wind up from here (their next show, Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, will be in a different theatre this June), Jitney shows the importance of voices like theirs in a city – nay, country – in danger of losing its artistic outlets; particularly those by people of color.

GRADE:                B-

Jitney runs until the 16th of April at the Marines’ Memorial Theatre.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.

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