Chicago Theatre Review
Congo Square’s ‘Jitney’ continues company’s standard of excellence
Jitney – Congo Square Theatre
From “What I Learned in Paris,” to “Hobo King,” to the astonishing “A Small Oak Tree Runs Red,” Congo Square Theatre has long staked a claim as one of the finest interpreters of the black experience in Chicago’s theater scene, and the company has continued that standard of excellence with its new production of August Wilson’s “Jitney.”
Set in the cramped offices of a gypsy cab service in Pittsburg in 1977, “Jitney” has many of the themes and characters that populate the other nine plays in Wilson’s famed Pittsburg Cycle. Becker (Lee Palmer), the owner of the service, is a retiree living on his pension from a nearby mill, and he spends his days collecting fairs, helping friends, and managing the various personalities of his other drivers, which include Youngblood (Malcom Banks), a young veteran of the Vietnam War looking to settle down, Fielding (Ernest Perry), an outlandish alcoholic, and Turnbo (Anthony Irons), an incessant gossip. Complicating matters further, Becker’s lone child, Booster (Ronald L. Conner), has been in prison for murder, and is set to be released any day now. The elements are classic Wilson, and will feel intimately familiar to anyone who has seen “Seven Guitars,” “Fences,” or any of his other works.
The story unfolds in the casual, anecdote-heavy, poetic fashion that Wilson is known for, with characters swapping tales of the past, philosophizing on their actions, and rationalizing their mistakes. As with Wilson’s other plays, there are some problematic elements – the second act rushes through some of the first act’s plot lines, and the play’s lone female character (although well played by Ramissa Ma’at) has little of the depth and nuance of the show’s other male characters – yet “Jitney” remains a powerful work, especially in the hands of an ensemble as thoroughly gifted as what Congo presents.
Wonderfully directed by the legendary actress Cheryl Lynn Bruce, the ensemble handles Wilson’s complicated dialogue and situations with ease. Congo Square ensemble members Irons and Conner are particularly good, and as Becker, Palmer is the heart and soul of the production, a good, stable man trying his best in trying times. His inevitable confrontation with Booster – one that involves two men who are both diametrically opposed and yearning for each other’s love – represents some of the finest writing Wilson ever achieved, and with performers as talented as Palmer and Conner, the scene is visceral, mesmerizing theater.
Reviewed by Peter Thomas Ricci
Running through Feb. 11, presented by Congo Square Theatre at the Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport Ave
Tickets are available by visiting www.congosquaretheatre.org.
Additional information about this and other spectacular area productions is available at the one, the only, the indefatigable www.theatreinchicago.com.