Penumbra Theatre's Masterful “Jitney”

August Wilson’s emotionally epic story of a Pittsburgh cab company comes to vivid, memorable life

Great experiences in the theater are uncommon. The truly moving, masterful, near-uncanny evening spent in the audience is the equivalent of unexpected treasure—an experience you will carry with you, something that makes subtle changes in your heart and mind.

In short: There are seven remaining performances in Penumbra Theatre’s extended run of August Wilson’s Jitney. If at all possible, I urge you to see it because it is something rare and extraordinary.

The action takes place in a gritty 1970s Pittsburgh cab company run by the put-upon Becker (James Craven) and staffed by men in various stages of hope, intrigue, and despair, including the slyly manipulative Turnbo (Terry Bellamy) and elder statesman Doub (Abdul Salaam El Razzac)—whose banter swinging between rancor and familiarity from one moment to the next is emblematic of the astonishing assurance and purpose of this production.

What follows weaves Wilson’s preoccupations—father-son conflict, romantic turbulence, the poetry of everyday speech, and the socio-economic forces that shaped the African American experience throughout the 20th century—into a compelling story that fully captures the sublime and mythic textures beneath the everyday. We feel the grinding gears of machinery and history propelling our universal selves with a sense of uncanny intuition and electrifying precision.

Ultimately, this Jitney is an exemplar of a particular set of circumstances. Penumbra has staged versions of the work dating back to its earliest incarnation, and the fact that Wilson’s grand vision was in part incubated at the St. Paul theater, along with director Lou Bellamy and a number of these actors, means that this is an opportunity to see a level of depth, cohesion, and emotional impact in a staging of a play by the writer who may well be our American Shakespeare.

A couple of impressions remain after the lights go down. There’s the conflict between the shaky couple of Rena (Jasmine Hughes) and Youngblood (Darrick Mosley), with intimations of infidelity and strife that resolve into something far sweeter with the interplay because of a couple of strong performers thriving within this rich, fertile dramatic soil.

Then there’s the conflict at the end of the first act, when Becker and his son Booster (James T. Alfred) square off. Becker has just been released after two decades in prison, and the two circle, venting sadness and recrimination, pride and stubbornness, delivering emotions like jabs and roundhouse rights. It’s one of the best scenes I’ve seen in the theater, with Wilson’s explosive dialogue finding a match in Craven and Alfred’s performances, and with Bellamy’s invisible hand guiding things. It’s powerful to the point of devastating, and a fitting memory of a night that electrifies any theatergoer looking for heart, genius, and the archetypal figures beneath the scruff of our working lives.  

Jitney runs at Penumbra Theatre through August 13. Tickets here.

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Quinton Skinner is a writer and editor based in the Twin Cities. A former senior editor of Minnesota Monthly, he held the same post at Twin Cities METRO and 
has written for major national and local publications. He is the co-founder of Logosphere Storysmiths and author of several novels, including his latest, Odd One Out.