Spirit of the Past
Revival reveals fresh possibilities in playwrights’ early work
~ By DON SHIRLEY ~
Photo by Stephen Simon
Father and son reunion: Richard Brooks (L) and James Avery in Jitney
Plenty of well-known playwrights probably wouldn’t want to revisit their early work, decades later. Better to concentrate on their more mature scripts. But two current revivals of writers’ fledgling plays are vibrant reminders of the excitement that can be generated by a new theatrical voice – even decades after the fact.
Although August Wilson himself didn’t know it in 1978, when his Jitney was first produced, it was the first sign of what would become his 10-play cycle about black Americans in the 20th century. It didn’t create much of a splash. But after Wilson’s series of plays in the ’80s made him famous, he reshaped Jitney into a worthy component of his cycle. The rewritten version reached L.A. in 2000 at the Mark Taper Forum, where it seemed lively and likable, if not one of his greatest.
Russell Andrews as “Youngblood” and Alex Morris as “Doub” Photo – Stephen Simon
But the play seems even funnier and more poignant now, judging from the new revival by director Claude Purdy – one of Wilson’s longtime colleagues. Maybe it’s because we’re closer to the action at the small Lillian Theatre, or maybe it’s because Jitney again reminds us of how much we lost when Wilson died a year ago – as have the recent productions of Joe Turner’s Come and Gone and Fences.
Set in 1977, Jitney is realistic, without the excursions into the mystical or the supernatural that dot most of Wilson’s later work. We’re in the dispatch office of a “car service” (unlicensed cabs) company in Pittsburgh, on a Joel Daavid set that could hardly look more authentic.
The building has been condemned as part of an urban redevelopment plan. The owner of the company (James Avery) is warily awaiting the release from prison of his 39-year-old son (Richard Brooks), who served 20 years for a murder. The youngest of the drivers, a Vietnam vet (Russell Andrews, who played the same role in the 2002 London premiere and is the co-producer here), is suspected of fooling around with his wife’s (Lizette Carrion) sister.
A handful of supporting characters, particularly a combative meddler (John Toles-Bey) and an old souse (Mel Winkler), enrich the dialogue immensely. The second act has a plot development that more or less falls from the sky – but sometimes unexpected events do happen. In retrospect, a subtle element of Avery’s magnificent performance helps prepare the way for this unexpected turn. – D.S.