Jitney – A Remarkable Production at The Old Globe

August Wilson has justifiably won a pair of Pulitzer Prizes for his searing and insightful studies of black life in America. His cycle of ten plays are set in Pittsburgh, one from each decade in the last century, and span a range of memorable characters. The underlying thread across the plays is the struggle to balance the promise of American racial equality with the blunt reality that is not always aligned.

“Jitney” is set in the office of a Pittsburgh car service in 1977. Becker runs the operation and by the end of the first act he confronts his son, who has been incarcerated for 20 years. Becker (Steven Anthony Jones) seems to be the most even-keeled, but his long simmering anger comes to a boil upon seeing his son for the first time in two decades. The son Booster is ably played by Francois Battiste, who is struggling with life on the outside.
In the run up to that gripping scene Wilson slowly introduces us to a handful of characters in the first act.

(from left) Amari Cheatom as Youngblood and Ray Anthony Thomas as Turnbo in August Wilson’s Jitney, directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, runs January 18 – February 23, 2020 at The Old Globe. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Youngblood is exactly that, a rake apparently playing fast and loose between two sisters. As played by Amari Cheatom, we have wavering sympathies for Youngblood. Each character evolves during the play, the mark of excellence in writing, but perhaps Youngblood evolves the most.
Turnbo (wonderfully portrayed by Ray Anthony Thomas) knows too much about everyone and want to let folks know. Like many in the cast, Thomas has been in other Wilson plays. This richness of experience pays off, as the cast weaves comfortably from scene to scene.

Keith Randolph Smith is Doub, the character who seems to be the ombudsman of the group. Quick to cut through the malarkey, Doub brings his fellow car service drivers back to center when they veer off in improbable directions.

Wilson has been criticized for the dearth of women in his plays, but he professes that he is not best positioned to write from the female perspective. Nonetheless, across his ten plays various insightful characters from the distaff side appear. In “Jitney” it is Rena, portrayed by Nija Okoro. As Youngblood’s paramour, she is dismayed at his seeming lack of direction, and their scene in the middle of Act Two is a powerful exchange.

(from left) Amari Cheatom as Youngblood and Nija Okoro as Rena in August Wilson’s Jitney, directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, runs January 18 – February 23, 2020 at The Old Globe. Photo by Joan Marcus.

(from left) Ray Anthony Thomas as Turnbo, Steven Anthony Jones as Becker, Anthony Chisholm as Fielding, Keith Randolph Smith as Doub and Amari Cheatom as Youngblood in August Wilson’s Jitney, directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, runs January 18 – February 23, 2020 at The Old Globe. Photo by Joan Marcus.

All the action takes place in the ‘station’ of the car service, which elsewhere is known as gypsy cabs. David Gallo’s scenic design is note-perfect, run down, comfortable and a second home for years.

August Wilson

Ruben Santiago-Hudson

Director Ruben Santiago-Hudson plumbs his own upbringing in another rust belt city (Lackawanna, just outside Buffalo) and delivers a superb production.

In “Jitney” one of the characters laments that as time goes on all he is left with is a diminishing amount of time and nothing to hold onto. This is a prescient foreshadowing of where we are today; the bottom half of society have none of the nation’s wealth and actually have a negative net worth.

The growing inequality in 2020 is adroitly explored by Wilson through the lens of Pittsburgh in 1977 in a fully satisfying production of “Jitney.”

Ticket information available here.


Brad Auerbach has been covering the media, entertainment, travel and technology scene for many years. He has written for Forbes, Time Out London, Village Voice, LA Weekly and early in his career won a New York State College Journalism Award.

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