Everything goes right in the production of Jitney going on now until October 20 at Arena Stage. Not in the play, of course — August Wilson has some yelling and pain planned for another batch of complicated, intimately knowable Pittsburgh citizens. But the production? Not a hitch.
The first of Wilson’s “Century Cycle” in terms of when he wrote them, Jitney, which is set in the ’70s, takes up the story of an unlicensed jitney cab station and its ragtag group of male drivers. Several of Wilson’s recurring tropes make appearances: old men reminisce about times gone by, young men seek to advance in the world; one character is just out of prison, another gets kicked out of the house by his girlfriend; and, of course, the faceless city government is dead set against these black men running a business at all.
Director Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s 2017 staging of Jitney won the Tony Award for best revival, and it’s not difficult to see why. Everything, from David Gallo’s humanely scuffed set (the stories that couch could tell…) to Toni-Leslie James’s never-too-fancy, never-too-humble costumes, feels both lived in and alive, as if bell-bottom jeans and old copies of Ebony never really went away, they were just hiding behind a door you forgot to open.
Steven Anthony Jones stars as Becker, a respectable citizen who supplements his mill worker’s pension by running a pirate car service, but who hasn’t seen his son (Francois Battiste) in 20 years — he never visited him in prison. Among Becker’s drivers are the wise but kind Doub (Keith Randolph Smith), the ambitious Darnell aka “Youngblood” (Amari Cheatom), Turnbo (Ray Anthony Thomas), who’s constantly meddlesome but never malevolent, and Anthony Chisholm’s tragic Fielding, who can barely stay sober long enough to get behind the wheel. Chisholm has been playing the role for more than two decades, but all of these performers (as well as a few others) look very comfortable in the driver’s seat. And they seem to sincerely enjoy working together, even when punches are thrown.
Bill Sims Jr.’s original music and Jane Cox’s lights paint the scene, which fills Arena’s Kreeger Theatre like a glove. And the meticulous way Wilson shuffles and layers his story’s many plotlines keeps any literal or metaphorical dust from settling. This is heady, gripping drama, and I’ve rarely seen an audience rise to give a standing ovation so quickly.
Jitney is definitely a ride worth taking.