Over the last twenty-five years, playwright August Wilson has written plays about the African American experience in the Hill District of Pittsburgh. His nine plays chronicle that experience decade by decade. The Indianapolis Repertory Theatre is presenting Wilson’s "Jitney," the play that started things off in 1979 and was revised in 1996.
"Jitney" is a name for the gypsy cabs that operated on the Hill. Set in 1977, the show does a wonderful job of evoking the rich echoes of the period. There is a story line to "Jitney" about a son and father reunion, but Wilson doesn’t develop it significantly. The essence of the play is simply the introduction of a wonderfully varied and interesting group of characters and how they manage to get along. There’s a young man hoping to better himself. A hotel clerk who is justifiably proud of his attendance record at work, but who most mornings wobbles into the cab office for a ride home after a wild night. Then there’s a man who’s always talking, always into everyone’s business, but very defensive of his own. A fourth is the local bookie who occasionally uses the "Jitney" cab office’s phone as his own place of business. I could-with pleasure-go on, but you get the idea.
The IRT has drawn on actors from around the country to assemble a very strong, varied and personable cast for "Jitney." Many of them have experience elsewhere in other August Wilson’s plays. Director Timothy Douglas has gone deeply into "Jitney" and the pace, the rhythm, the physical movement and the etched characterizations show it.
The scenic design of a run down, gypsy cab office by Tony Cisek is masterfully realistic and then the huge mural photos behind it, a parked ’63 Cadillac Coupe DeVille and the brick road that runs away from it, take it almost to the surreal. Tracy Dorman’s costumes for "Jitney" run from the most flamboyant to the severely conservative. They practically tell a story all by themselves. Vincent Olivieri’s sound design draws on the musical sounds of the time. Sometimes they simply fit, at other times they heighten the action or are an ironic comment on it.
At the curtain call for Sunday afternoon’s matinee, the applause grew as one by one the cast came onto the stage. Finally there was a standing ovation.
The IRT’s production of August Wilson’s "Jitney" continues through March 6th.