Like the small, delicate pieces of a finely-crafted wrist watch, the ensemble of August Wilson’s “Jitney,” articulated the playwright’s musings of Black men struggling to remain hopeful in a newly-gentrified community where options for survival continue to decline in synchronized fashion. Each character brings his own unique identity to the stage but as you watch their interactions, and listen to the push and pull of the playwright’s carefully-developed dialogue, you may soon understand why their working together remains essential to their individual destinies.
If you’ve ever been to Black urban metropolises like Pittsburgh, the setting of Wilson’s work, you may find it easier to comprehend the ministry of men like his characters Shealy (Harvy Blanks) or Fielding (Anthony Chisholm) — two of my favorite from this current production. However, they could be from anywhere in the U.S.
I can recall the sing-song tones of jitneys in Jamaica, Queens (New York City) where the drivers hail from island nations like the Bahamas or the West Indies as well as those natives of Haiti, serenading their passengers in Creole tongues throughout South Florida. In other words, the names and individual histories of each jitney driver could be easily changed but not the work they do, the contributions they provide for the community — the very necessity of their existence.
Moreover, in today’s world where Uber, Lyft and other application-based means of transportation have all but decimated the need for jitneys, Wilson’s work and the conversations of his characters provide an important history lesson for those too young to remember “the good old days.”
Watching this production, wonderfully directed by the talented Ruben Santiago-Hudson, set in 1977 when I was just a high school junior in Detroit, I was taken back to a time when jitneys served as one of our most reliable means of transportation. Cab drivers often passed Black people by — in fact, they still do 40 years later, sometimes.
But the jitneys never failed us then. And they will not fail us tomorrow.
See “Jitney” at the Arena Stage which runs through October 20. See the pieces of the watch move separately yet collectively so that the one timepiece keeps up on track. This is the great contribution of a tremendously talented cast that includes the craftsmanship of Amari Cheatom (Youngblood), Francois Battiste (Booster) and Brian D. Coats (Philmore).
This is Wilson’s “Jitney” — a story that never grows old.