The play may be called “Jitney” and set in a gypsy cab station, but August Wilson’s early work is not about driving cars.
Now running at the Gallery Players in Park Slope, the playwright’s eighth installment in his much-heralded “Pittsburgh Cycle” is an imperfect yet engrossing glimpse at the lives of men — young men, old men, failed men, poor men, alcoholic men, ambitious men, generous men, wise men, hot-headed men, all of them black men — working as drivers in the 1970s.
From the start, there’s a sense of familiarity among them, conveyed through the teasing, the debates (who’s prettier — Lena Horne or Sarah Vaughan?) and even the punches thrown. It’ll take some paying attention, but you’ll get familiar with them, too.
There’s Youngblood, a 24-year-old Vietnam vet who’s trying to buy a house for his girlfriend and 2-year-old son; the gray-haired, stuttering Turnbo, who likes to know everyone’s business; Doub, the voice of reason; Shealy, who uses the incessantly ringing phone to “take numbers”; Fielding, a former tailor who made suits for Count Basie back in the day, but now risks job and health by drinking; and, at the helm of this tired ship, Becker, a retired miner.
Essentially two things happen in the play — first, Becker breaks the news that, in two weeks, the city is tearing down the shop’s block in an attempt at urban renewal. That, though, is almost an afterthought; a latter rallying cry against the destruction plays as insincere and pat.
The main meat comes from the second news — Becker’s estranged son, Booster, is being released from prison after serving 20 years for killing his rich, white girlfriend after she falsely claimed that he raped her.
That father-son relationship, and, in turn, the moving performances by Lawrence James, a Wilson veteran, as Becker, and Gil Charleston as Booster, make for the show’s best moments. There’s a tearjerker of a speech from James on being known as the man who raised a murderer — it elicited a few audible “wows” at Sunday’s matinee —followed by a glimpse of Charleston’s tear-streaked, helpless face, one of director Gregory Simmons’s beautifully crafted moments.
It’s an ensemble piece, so thankfully, the rest of the cast turns in solid performances. Kwaku Driskell is a weary yet charming Fielding, and Terrence Charles Rodgers is funny as Turnbo — though his inexplicable stutter only seemed to serve as a cover for more than a few flubbed lines.
However rich the performances, the technical aspects of the play left much to be desired. The pace is intentionally contemplative, but it dragged nonetheless. It also didn’t help that even though there are no necessary scene changes — the play takes place entirely in the station — the multiple scene transitions left us sitting in the dark for much too long while canned music — street sounds or period music — attempted to fill the awkward silence.
I was impatient to get back to the otherwise fine drama at hand.
“Jitney” at the Gallery Players [199 14th St. between Fourth and Fifth avenue in Park Slope, (718) 832-0617], now through April 3. Tickets $18 ($14 for children and seniors). For info, visit www.galleryplayers.com.