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May 31, 2012

TT: The sound of life itself

The Wall Street Journal has given me an extra drama column this week with which to report from California on South Coast Repertory's revival of August Wilson's Jitney. Here's an excerpt.

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Has there been an American playwright who was better than August Wilson at turning the everyday speech of ordinary people into poetry? Maybe Clifford Odets, but I'd be hard pressed to name another rival. Scarcely a page of "Jitney," the first installment of Mr. Wilson's 10-play cycle about the black experience in America, goes by without at least a line or two that sets the air to dancing. One of the glories of South Coast Repertory's distinguished revival is that each member of the cast is fully, excitingly alive to the play's verbal music. For all its beauties, "Jitney" is not the most soundly made of Mr. Wilson's scripts, but in this staging, directed with unobtrusive but uncommon finesse by Ron OJ Parson, its flaws are rendered irrelevant by the sheer quality of the performance.

jitney5-17426.jpg"Jitney" is set in 1977, five years before the play received its premiere. The scene is the rundown station of a gypsy-cab company in the Hill District of Pittsburgh. Becker (Charlie Robinson), who runs the station, is a world-weary man of a certain age who has just received a pair of bitter blows. Not only has he learned that the city is about to tear down the decaying building that houses the station, but Booster (Montae Russell), his son, who went to prison 20 years ago for killing a woman, has served out his term and come back to Pittsburgh. Booster's unwelcome presence will trigger a confrontation with his father in which the price of pride is dramatized with a force that is worthy of Shakespeare--or Sophocles.

The first act of "Jitney" is a perfect piece of theatrical carpentry that may well be the best thing Mr. Wilson ever wrote. The climactic showdown between Becker and his son has an operatic thrust and weight, and even the most casual of conversations elswehere in the play ring with the sound of life itself....

Not only is Mr. Parson's staging as earthy and right as a 12-bar blues, but Shaun Motley's sad, shabby set and Vincent Olivieri's precisely calculated sound design supply the frame for a winningly fine display of ensemble acting by the entire nine-person cast, led with unimpeachable realism by Mr. Robinson....

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Read the whole thing here.

Posted May 31, 2012 12:00 AM

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