Jocular tales, vivid metaphors and folk wisdom suffuse “Jitney,” one of August Wilson’s earliest works, which director Lou Bellamy has revived to open Penumbra Theatre’s 40th anniversary season.
Stories give way to more stories, metaphors to more poetic images in a sterling production that matches Wilson’s poetry.
One compelling sequence comes late in the show, after pivotal character Booster (James T. Alfred), who has just served a 20-year prison sentence, tries to reconcile with his estranged father, Becker (James Craven). While Booster is speaking, Becker walks out in mid-sentence, leaving his son upset and confused.
Enter Fielding (Marcus Naylor), who works for Becker. He offers some advice: “If you in the treetop, you can’t do nothing but jump to the ground. But first you got to know how you got up there. Did you climb up to get some apples? Or was you run up by a bear? You got to know that ’cause you might have to start running when you hit the ground.”
“Jitney” is set in a gypsy cab stand in 1977 Pittsburgh as urban renewal threatens the men’s neighborhood and livelihood. The play has a storied history at Penumbra, where it premiered as a one-act in 1984. Wilson later revised it, adding “Jitney” to his decade-by-decade chronicle of black life in 20th-century America. Bellamy memorably staged it at Penumbra in 2000.
Smooth, confident and gorgeous, this production reflects Bellamy’s genius — he has an eye for style and an ear for Wilson’s music. He also has assembled a company of Penumbra regulars, some of whom were in the 2000 production.
All understand Wilson’s rhythms. There’s palpable tension between Craven and Alfred, who puts on a standout performance full of pathos and heartbreak.
Other heavyweights include Terry Bellamy, who is mouthy and ornery as an argumentative busybody who shares his thoughts with anyone who will listen; Abdul Salaam El Razzac as a wise elder who knows how to negotiate any situation; T. Mychael Rambo as a hopeful neighborhood drunk, and Kevin D. West as a smooth numbers runner. The way he walks to answer a phone call is a little production in itself.
But this “Jitney” is not all about history. There’s a sense of an acting legacy being passed on, with Wilson newbies Darrick Mosley and Jasmine Hughes holding their own in fast company. Mosley delivers a fleet-footed turn as the company’s youngest driver, a man with big dreams for his family, even as he is suspected of being a Lothario. As his fiancée, Hughes — a recent Ivey Award winner — finds her character’s fear and anger, while holding onto a pleasant surprise.