by Hugh Hunter
“Jitney” (1996), by August Wilson, now running at Stagecrafters, is set in 1977 in the hardscrabble Hill District of Pittsburgh. Becker (Darryl A. Bell) runs a humble gypsy cab business. But storm clouds loom over his operation as we hear that the city threatens to demolish the ramshackle block, and Becker is on the outs with son Booster (Kash Goins).
The dingy office (set design Scott Killinger) has just the workaday essentials. Glass doors make up the rear wall. The side wall telephone rings regularly, and it is comical to watch the drivers disguise (or fail to disguise) their true feelings in dealing with costumers.
The glass doors open onto the ghetto street, giving the stage a wonderful 3-D feel. Director Marilyn Yoblick’s production is a teeming collage as African-Americans come and go in circular haste, their hand-to-mouth existence on full display.
Costumes help define them. We can see that hard-drinking Fielding (Maurice [Reece] Tucker) is a former haberdasher; that Shealy with his pimp-like clothing (Kamili Feelings) deals numbers; that Philmore (Richard Steven Bradford) does hotel work.
Prominent in the early going are Youngblood (Roderick Slocum) and Rena (Tiffany Barrett). Their shaky relationship is troubled by Youngblood’s secretive nightly activities, while pesty Turnbo (Damien J. Wallace) tries to steal her away.
Playwright Wilson grasps the poetic aspect of African-American vernacular. He is at his best with older characters like Doub (Andre N. Jones) when soliloquies resonate with black history and take on the oracular aura of a village elder.
Especially noteworthy is Wallace’s dynamic Turnbo. The character embodies a schism in a community that reveres traditional morality yet flouts it as well. Both moralist and reprobate, gun-waving Turnbo is vibrantly at war with himself, and you feel his potential for violence.
The opening act ends with a powerful showdown between Becker and son Booster, reflecting African-American turmoil of the ’70s in which the young generation rejects pragmatic compromise regarding race. Both Bell and Goins are immensely credible.
But alas, after intermission this “Jitney” runs out of gas as the play does not satisfy any of the expectations it raised. Turnbo’s violence never materializes. It turns out that Youngblood and Rena do not have any problem, just misunderstandings from failing to talk things out. So why talk so much now?
It’s because by now “Jitney” is playing stall ball. Playwright Wilson does not have the plot material to resolve his own dramatic questions. Becker is simply erased via a deus ex machina device while Booster takes over to confront some future demolition we see no evidence of.
There are lots of modern plays content to create a weighty dramatic ambiance and let it go at that — a kind of theatrical tableau vivant — with or without a meaningless second act. If you like such fare, “Jitney” is a truly fine play. If you don’t like it, “Jitney” is a clunker.
Stagecrafters is located at 8130 Germantown Ave. “Jitney” will run through Dec. 9. Reservations at 215-247-9913 or www.thestagecrafters.org.