By Joseph McDonough
The Cincinnati Enquirer
DAYTON - With August Wilson's Gem of the Ocean running in Chicago, the two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright is nine-tenths of the way through his 10-play cycle exploring the African-American experience in the 20th century decade by decade.
The first play of the series was Jitney and it is being given a strong production at the Human Race Theatre that is well worth seeing.
Jitney (representing the '70s in the Wilson canon) is not Wilson's best play, but it contains enough of his powerful, poetic storytelling and lively characters to make it eminently interesting.
Originally written in 1979, and extensively revised in 1996, Jitney tells the various tales of a group of "jitney" cab drivers who run an unlicensed and unofficial taxi service out of a rundown storefront in Wilson's hometown of Pittsburgh.
We meet an assortment of funny cab drivers, all given complex nobility and speaking with Wilson's brilliant ear for dialogue.
There's Turnbo the neighborhood gossip (Alan Bomar Jones) who can't keep his nose out of the other drivers' business. He antagonizes Youngblood (Shaun Patrick Tubbs), the new hothead who has personal business he doesn't want to share.
We also have alcoholic Fielding (Norman McGowan) still reminiscing about a wife he hasn't seen in 22 years, slick numbers-running Shealy (W. Jay Pierce) and Doub the peacemaker, who has no use for blaming others for their problems.
Two-thirds of the way through the first act, Jitney settles on car service boss Becker (Allie Woods) and his estranged son Booster (Marcus Maurice) as the primary focus of the play.
Booster has just been released from prison for a murder he committed 20 years ago and for which his father has disowned him. The scene between Woods and Maurice at the end of the act where they unleash 20 years of unspoken thoughts and pain is beautifully done.
Director Sheily Ramsey, in fact, gets warm, sometimes humorous and nicely nuanced performances out of most of her cast.
Only Ebony S. Blake fails to connect as Youngblood's girlfriend, Rena. She has the double misfortune of playing Jitney's most underwritten role and not having the stage experience to hold her own with the rest of the veteran ensemble.
The detailed set design by David Centers is perfect - from the beat-up air conditioner hanging over the door, to the dirty smudges on the windows, right down to the faded red and brown linoleum floor. Nice work.
Jitney, through May 11, Human Race Theatre, Dayton, (937) 228-3630.
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