On Theater: Powerful 'Jitney' rumbles through SCR

South Coast Repertory, having produced two plays in August Wilson's Century Cycle ("The Piano Lesson" and "Fences"), now is offering the one which began it all, long before the idea of a 10-play, 10-decade chronology was born.

That would be "Jitney," set in 1977 in, as all of them are, Pittsburgh's predominantly-black Hill District, specifically in the office of a makeshift taxi service facing the wrecking ball of urban renewal.

Wilson's "Jitney" resembles another play from that era by another Wilson — Lanford. His "The Hot L Baltimore" also is set in a facility marked for destruction and both plays are rich in atmospheric content — characters moving in and out of the action before any true plot develops. There's even a loudly contested checkers match in both plays.

In "Jitney," directed at SCR by Ron O.J. Parson, the cabbies eke out a meager living as they grouse and grumble about life's incongruities. It's at least a half hour into the show before any real characterization begins to form, and then Wilson lays the hammer down with a vengeance.

The show's focus is on the operator of the car service, Becker, a world-weary veteran of social strife whose son is released from prison after serving 20 years on a murder charge. To say the pair have been estranged would be putting it mildly — the father has virtually put the son out of his mind since the fatal incident.

As masterfully interpreted by Charlie Robinson (so powerful in SCR's "Fences"), Becker explodes into a fervent fury as the son, Booster (Montae Russell) attempts to reach out to him.

This extended episode (its length may test playgoers' patience) shifts the play's tone from good-natured bickering into a darker, deeper area of familial discord.

Becker faces another crisis, the imminent closure of his taxi operation and the uncertain fate of his drivers — the aging, pistol-packing Turnbo (Ellis E. Williams), the young, ambitious Darnell — a.k.a. Youngblood, Wilson's boyhood nickname — (Larry Bates), the more grounded Doub (James A. Watson Jr.) and the tipsy, tippling Fielding (David McKnight).

Bates' character develops further in an emotional subplot with his girlfriend and the mother of his young son (Kristy Johnson), with whom he engages in another lengthy skirmish as they sort out their emotions and intentions. It's almost comic relief in comparison with Becker's traumatic situation.

Williams veers into overstatement in his face-off with Bates, screaming and waving a handgun. McKnight exhibits a cool, alcohol-fueled sense of detachment while Watson attempts to keep a semblance of order. Russell's earnest but futile attempts to reconcile with his father are effective, but keep his true character shielded.

Fringe players drop by to heighten the atmosphere — Rolando Boyce as a snappily dressed numbers runner, Gregg Daniel as a doorman from a neighboring hotel. All contribute to the overall convivial atmosphere

Shaun Motley, who created the grimly effective backdrops for SCR's "Fences" and "Topdog / Underdog," has designed a richly appointed rundown office setting. Gritty costumes by Dana Rebecca Woods and Brian J. Lilienthal's moody lighting continue the atmospheric approach splendidly.

"Jitney" gravitates between low-key character development and loud, visceral confrontation, with a blind-siding plot development late in the action, in this strong season-closing production at South Coast Repertory.

TOM TITUS covers local theater for the Daily Pilot.

If You Go

What: "Jitney"

Where: South Coast Repertory Segerstrom Stage, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

When: at 7 :30 p.m. on Sundays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays, at 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, and at 2 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays through June 10

Cost: $20 to $68

Call: (714) 708-5555 or visit http://www.scr.org.

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