Ways and Meanings

How do we get from here to there? That's the question the theater always asks. Following the standard routes may be boring, but if you ignore them and hack out your own path, you'd better be a damn good road builder if you want the public to come along. Just now, the New York theater's in a miserable state: With more and more people eager for the journey, the main roads have all degenerated into dreary strip malls, while the side roads that used to be so full of scenic surprises have either gotten commercialized themselves or run down into unnavigable ditches at the behest of those who like to stay off the beaten track. We need new paths, a latter-day Treplev might remark, but every square inch of land has been so overdeveloped that there's hardly room to map out your own way.

August Wilson, at least, is a writer who's always carved his own road. Jitney, written before Ma Rainey's Black Bottom and reworked last year, is thus both his first tentative step and his most assured new move forward. It takes place in the late '70s, when that creeping monolith, urban renewal, looms over Pittsburgh's Hill district, shutting down crumbling buildings but not replacing them for years, which only increases inner-city devastation. The ghetto, meantime, grows its own businesses, like the unlicensed cab ("jitney") station where Wilson's work is set, a black market enterprise in two senses. Driving where ordinary cabs won't go is a risky and haphazard business. The drivers, men who are past other work, or too green for it, or working multiple jobs to get by, are sometimes reliable and sometimes not. Some keep guns in their cabs, one of which is waved about at a climactic moment. That it never goes off conveys Wilson's boldness with the rules of standard playwriting. But Jitney is so rich with other kinds of life that the customary building blocks of plot don't matter very much.

With more action and less storytelling than other Wilson plays, Jitney isn't in the mode where Wilson is most expert. Some of the narrative elements cause him a discomfiture that's almost audible in the halting dialogue. But its flaws turn out to be virtues. The emotional awkwardness makes us feel the weight of the story, its importance to the writer. (Stark Young wrote that what always moved him about O'Neill was "the cost to the dramatist of what he handled.") And it points up the many purposes of the stories the characters tell—confession, warning, moral parable, shared memory. They make a kind of database that grounds this transitory place, where people constantly come and go. David Gallo's ingenious set runs downhill, like the neighborhood; its spacious interior is backed by a full view of the somber, metallic streets outside, where director Marion McClinton often sets silent action to counterpoint the talk.

Driving force: Paul Butler and Carl Lumbly in Jitney
photo: Craig Schwartz
Driving force: Paul Butler and Carl Lumbly in Jitney


By August Wilson
Second Stage Theatre
307 West 43rd Street 212-246-4422

The Green Bird
By Carlo Gozzi
Adapted by Albert Bermel and Ted Emery
Cort Theatre
Seventh Avenue and 48th Street 212-239-6200

Taller than a Dwarf
By Elaine May
Longacre Theatre
Broadway and 48th Street 212-239-6200

Blood on the Dining Room Floor
By Jonathan Sheffer
Based on texts by Gertrude Stein
Peter Norton Space
555 West 42nd Street 212-244-7529

Jesus Christ Superstar
By Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber
Ford Center for the Performing Arts
Broadway and 42nd Street 212-307-4100

Speedy, vivacious, and layered with interaction, McClinton's style is a far cry from the stately directorial pace of Lloyd Richards, who staged Wilson's previous New York productions. Its unexpected bounce gives the storytelling a new verve, making it a less solemn, more quotidian, ritual: Trading stories becomes good manners, like exchanging greetings when you get to work in the morning. Intriguingly, in Jitney the character who's the greatest fount of anecdotes is also the center of negativity: Turnbo (Stephen McKinley Henderson), an old driver with a moral platitude for every occasion and a damning piece of gossip about everyone. Henderson achieves an astonishing double feat, making us like the man—or anyway, admire his audacity—despite his hypocrisy, and making his repeated sententious tags seem fresh every time. While Turnbo disrupts the cab station's camaraderie, and nearly breaks up a pair of young lovers, the cab fleet's owner, Becker (Paul Butler), is undergoing his own crisis. Becker's son (Carl Lumbly) has just returned from 20 years in the pen—the circumstances of his crime are too complex to narrate here—during which Becker has refused to see or speak to him. Their ongoing confrontation is the play's core, about which the stresses of Becker's drivers and their customers circle, till a pair of unexpected circumstances brings matters to a close that, it develops, is also a continuity.

The father-son conflict resembles the one in Fences, with an added disagreement, over churchgoing, that in other Wilson plays mars relations between husband and wife or brother and sister. Not always secure in the story's realistic details, Wilson gives it the weight of a mythic prototype, a new and bitterer version of the prodigal's return. Both Butler and Lumbly rise movingly to the occasion, the former with a big, expansive gravity that seems noble even at its harshest, and the latter with a burning anguish that's all the more striking because Wilson gives him lines that barely seem to unpack the role's emotional content. There are other strong performances in McClinton's production: Willis Burks II as a love-struck numbers runner, Anthony Chisholm as the cab fleet's resident alkie, Russell Hornsby as the youngster in whose love life Turnbo meddles. Wilson gives them all material rich with zesty detail; whatever one might think his play lacks in shape or selectivity, it has a dense-packed awareness of life that makes it more gratifying than more "perfect" works. By the end, the characters are like a family you've known for years. Which may not solve the theater's aesthetic problem, but makes a great alternative to it.

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