REVIEW: Jitney

Bouyant.  Joyful.  Triumphant.  Moving.  Exceptional.  Smooth.  Magnificent.  Hopeful.

All of these words – and more – could be used to describe Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park’s production of August Wilson’s JITNEY.  Director Timothy Douglas has assembled an ensemble of amazing actors, giving nearly flawless performances.  To tell this story – or stories – requires a competent grasp of time and place.  But more important than understanding the 70s era, the piece requires an understanding of human nature.  An actor must have exquisite empathy for what it was like to be a black man in Pittsburgh in 1977 but also what it is like to be a father, a son, a husband, and a friend.

All of these men (and woman) are authentic, honest, and mesmerizing to watch.  I really really love this production.

JITNEY is the story of an unregistered cab company in an urban neighborhood.  Becker (Raymond Anthony Thomas) is the boss; everyone loves him.  Turnbo (Dion Graham), the station-gossip is hot-headed and a littel dangerous.  Youngblood (Michael Kevin Darnall) is a young father, back from the Army, trying to find his place in the world – and trying to stay out of trouble with his girlfriend, Rena (Stori Ayers).  Daub (Michael Anthony Williams) is the voice of reason, while Fielding (Doug Brown) has a problem with alcohol.  So does Philmore (Kenneth Early).  Shealy (Jefferson A. Russell) has a thing for the ladies – and uses the phone at the station to run numbers.  Finally, there’s Booster (Shane Taylor), just out of prison and coming home to a less than warm welcome.

Wilson’s script integrates these characters and their stories, weaving comedy and intense drama throughout his script.  And Douglas knows just the right tone, the right cadence, and the right balance.  He is a director whom I respect very much; he’s not afraid to push the envelope while keeping the story front and center.  I’ll admit that a handful of his plays have disappointed me over the last couple of years.  But the ones I liked were some of my favorite productions. This one falls solidly into that category.

From the moment the actors join one another on stage for a short impromptu dance party to the way he builds tension using natural sound effects, Douglas is a master of keeping the audience’s attention and getting visceral relations.  He’s brilliant.

And the actors in this piece are equally great.  I found myself especially taken with Darnall’s “Youngblood” and his youthful bravado, Brown’s “Fielding” and his comic timing, and Graham’s subtlety disturbed “Turnbo,” but all of the ensemble stood out in their own way.  Local favorite, Ken Early took command of his brief stage time and maximized his impact alongside the rest of this cast.  The chemistry is otherworldly.

It had to be a blast to get to play on Tony Cisek’s remarkable set design, while costume designer Tracy Dorman nailed the era and the character’s with her style.  Lights by Andrew Cissna and sound from Vincent Olivieri were at the standard we’ve come to expect at the Playhouse, as well.

JITNEY is a show that will appeal to audiences who love good stories, well developed characters, and well-crafted drama.  But more than that, its the kind of show that gives hope in a time where we need it nationally and in our local neighborhoods as well.  This show is not to be missed.

JITNEY runs through November 12th in the Marx Theatre at the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park.  Tickets and more information can be found here.  Be advised the show contains strong language and mature themes.