They've got a kind of blues symphony going on at the Court Theatre, with the redoubtable actor A.C. Smith conducting the August Wilson Repertory Orchestra.
Truly, the musical metaphor feels apt from the moment the Hyde Park curtain goes up on "Jitney," the Wilson play set in the 1970s and probing the lives of jitney cab drivers in Wilson's beloved Hill District of Pittsburgh. Not only does director Ron OJ Parson suffuse Jack Magaw's realistic physical landscape with recorded blues and jazz — and if that puts some pauses in the action, so be it — but anyone who has watched Wilson's dramas over the years in Chicago, one of his adopted creative homes, only has to look at the cast list to know that these are experienced hands with the late, great man and his work: Allen Gilmore, Alfred Wilson, Cedric Young and, of course, Smith, a vulnerable giant of a man with both humor and genuinely tragic magnitude.
These are seasoned Wilson players. All Parson had to do, really, was bring up the lights. Though that sense of getting out of the way of these characters is crucially present, it's nonetheless clear Parson did not just leave it there.
"Jitney" is an early Wilson play, written in 1979 before he'd come up with his great idea of penning a play about the African-American experience in every decade of the 20th century. Never above expedient choices, Wilson decided to count "Jitney" as his 1970s play, being as he'd already written it. He once told me there was one less play to write that way. Fair enough.
"Jitney" is generally regarded as more of a conventionally well-made play than Wilson's more experimental later works, when his rhetorical ambitions bring to mind Eugene O'Neill or Greek tragedy, the playwright having grown bored of writing plays like "Jitney," with their carefully structured beginning, middle and ends. But if the greatness of his language lies elsewhere, "Jitney" remains one of Wilson's most entertaining, craftful and user-friendly plays. There are no mystical characters watching over the action, no psychological excursions back through the city of bones. Just ordinary African-American guys in Pittsburgh trying to hack out a living and provide a service to their community.
And although Wilson would come to eschew plots like this, "Jitney" has as much humor and as much dramatic tension as any Wilson play, centered as it is on Becker (Smith), an upstanding man who has lived his life with pride, fought back against his lack of opportunity and built a business, a home and even some clout with the white owners of the steel mill where he worked.
Aside from celebrating the characters who drive these semilegal taxis (themselves both a legacy of racism and a fine example of black enterprise), Wilson is most interested in Becker's relationship with his adult son, Booster (Anthony Fleming III), who was injudiciously involved, 20 years earlier, with a white woman — the girl's lies and the father's anger sent Booster off the rails and into a ditch. In some ways Becker is the opposite of Troy in "Fences," a character fouled out by the color barrier in baseball. Some 20 years later, Booster has achieved far more than collecting garbage. But his pride leads to his flaw: He cannot bring himself to empathize with a hot-headed son who lacks his pragmatic point of view and who, at the end of Act 1, comes home from 20 years in the state penitentiary looking for paternal absolution.
It's that confrontation that sets Parson's production ablaze. Fleming is a big man himself, a powerful actor and many years Smith's junior. But Smith, a veritable colossus, still reduces him to rubble, which is exactly as Wilson intended. Their fights are truly a sight to see — not because of any physical confrontation, although that is always in the air — but for the sheer potency of the stakes. This is hardly the only scene like this in Wilson's work, and he's hardly the only playwright to build a play around the "you messed up/I was never good enough for you" confrontation between father and son, a timeless theme of American drama. But rarely do you get such a chance to size up the two sides, decide you're afraid of them in equal measure, grasp that both are jelly inside, and watch their battle with a mixture of concern and glee at the sheer force of emotions it carries. This was superlative casting. And it allows for some of the best work I've ever seen from Fleming, an actor from the Lookingglass Theatre ensemble — which is saying a great deal.
As for Smith, well, he's a one-of-a-kind member of the original Wilson players. His compatriots in this cast forge similarly detailed characters with the help of Melissa Torchia's funky costumes — Wilson playing a man fighting against drink; Gilmore a man in everybody else's business, being as he has so little business of his own; Young a kind of nervously normative character, the one who sets up the drama elsewhere in the room. For good measure, Parson throws in the live sparks Kamal Angelo Bolden and Caren Blackmore, playing, respectively, a young driver and his girlfriend, each struggling for their place but representing hope for the future.
As Parson sees them, they're a sexy, striving, bickering, lucky pair, mostly oblivious to how much they owe for their ride.
When: Through Oct. 14
Where: Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave.
Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes
Tickets: $45-$65 at 773-753-4472 and courttheatre.orgCopyright © 2015, RedEye