August Wilson’s Pulitzer-winning drama, Jitney, covers so much territory it’s sometimes difficult to keep track. Struggle, work, gossip, respect, loyalty, race and deep, deep regret. But mostly, Jitney is about pride and the lengths people will go to maintain it.
The play is set in a gypsy cab station in a distressed, black neighborhood in Pittsburgh, 1977. The set radiates squalor: an ancient refrigerator, a couch held together with duct tape, a piece of wood perched over a fruit box and cinder blocks to make a coffee table. The calls for rides come in by pay phone.
The show is almost completely character-driven and what a group. Becker (Steven Anthony Jones) runs the establishment – nominally. Doub (Keith Randolph Smith) is the understated voice of reason. Turnbo (Ray Anthony Thomas) is the town troll, trying to get a rise out of anyone who will listen. Youngblood (Amari Cheatom) is the young Vietnam vet with a happy secret. Booster (Francois Battiste), Becker’s son, is a recently released convict with something to prove.
Everything about this play, from the set to the characters to the dialogue, is coated in ancient sweat. The characters take it as a fait accompli that they will never catch a break. They can work hard, play by the rules, do everything right, but nothing actually works out. Those are just dreams.
This tension permeates the show. The scant action is widely interspersed – people argue but don’t necessarily act. What Jitney offers instead is action potential. These are frustrated men who have given up trying to find their place in the sun, though they have pleasant memories of what that striving felt like. They argue with each other because they can’t fight the system that’s put them in this place. They tried to make it work, they’ll tell you all about it. Any one of them could explode at any time.
Jitney isn’t a tragedy in any classic sense. It’s just tragic. These characters are sketched out in loving detail, but they aren’t necessarily admirable men or victims or heroes. They’re just people trying to get through their days the best way they can, trying to hold on to their pride.