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What constitutes a family?
This is one through line in August Wilson’s “Jitney,” the story of an underground cab service pushed to the brink by gentrification in a changing city, impeccably directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson and playing at Seattle Repertory Theatre through March 29.
Representing the 1970s in Wilson’s 10-play American Century Cycle chronicling life in Black communities, the story is set in a jitney station in the Hill District of Wilson’s native Pittsburgh, where licensed cabs driven by white drivers won’t service.
Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Wilson found a second home in Seattle, where he spent the final chapter of his career before his death in 2005. “Jitney” deepens a vibrant history of the “American Shakespeare’s” work at the Rep, one of few playhouses to produce the entirety of the American Century Cycle and one of even fewer that has also presented “How I Learned What I Learned,” Wilson’s autobiographical one-man play that premiered here in 2003. It was Wilson’s professional acting debut.
“Jitney,” which last graced Seattle Rep’s stage in 2002, is now back in a production, originally presented by Manhattan Theatre Club, that won the 2017 Tony Award for best revival of a play. It drew rave reviews for the melody of its dialogue, the thoughtfully designed set, its still-relevant depiction of the struggle of minority communities against displacement, and the nuanced performances of the cast.
Much of that lauded ensemble is onstage at the Rep, ably bringing out the music of Wilson’s script as the drivers chat and bicker more like family than friends. They bring to life the heart-wrenching struggles of a community pushed to a breaking point — both Black people in Pittsburgh and these men specifically. As the city threatens to demolish the entire block to “build houses,” each man shows in his own way what happens when forced into a corner.
Funk rock rolls out of the speakers as Darnell (aka Youngblood), Fielding and Turnbo — played by Amari Cheatom, Anthony Chisholm and Ray Anthony Thomas, respectively — start their routines at Jim Becker’s (Steven Anthony Jones) jitney station.
The phone rings, and we see why business is lagging. Fielding, drunk still from the night before, haggles with a rider for a $3 fare, and takes a $4 loan from Keith Randolph Smith’s levelheaded Doub; gossipmonger Turnbo answers a rider at a Giant Eagle grocery store, snapping that they’d better be “ready to go because I ain’t gonna be waiting.” Youngblood, a 20-something-year-old Vietnam veteran, thinks groceries will mess up his car.
The station is the unifying character. We’re placed squarely in a city block, with bits of Pittsburgh sprinkled about: a Sports Illustrated magazine commemorating the Steelers’ Immaculate Reception, the Regent Beverages crate propping up the coffee table, a map of Pittsburgh (with neighborhoods color-coded by fare) hanging next to Becker’s list of oft-ignored rules.
Becker is tired of running cars after 18 years. It shows.
“You look up one day and all you got left is what you ain’t spent,” he tells Doub after disclosing the city’s plans to raze the block. “Every day costs you something and you don’t all the time realize it.”
The emotional stakes rev when Becker’s son, Booster, gets out of prison two decades after killing his ex, a white woman who falsely accused Booster of rape. Becker remains furious that his son threw away his life; Booster is still bitter his father didn’t visit during his sentence; they blame each other for the death of Booster’s mother, just weeks after a judge sentenced her son to the electric chair.
Among the well-rounded cast, Francois Battiste shines as Booster, showcasing every ounce of grief, resentment, longing and love when he returns home to an unforgiving, resentful father. Chisholm, as Fielding, is an orchestra unto himself as he climbs from a grumble to a high E and down again. They, along with Smith as steady Doub, are standouts among a stacked bill.
As the deadline looms, Doub confronts Becker for lying down for the city; Booster blames his father for letting other men make him feel puny. So Becker takes a stand: He tells Turnbo to butt out of everybody’s business. He demands Fielding return sober or not at all. They’re a car service: that means hauling groceries and suitcases. Feeling big again, Becker says they aren’t going anywhere — because the Black community needs rides. He sends Youngblood for an errand, then heads off, defiant.
What happens next makes the men realize the importance of the jitney station — not only in a changing city threatened by gentrification, but in the extended family that Becker built for the people there.
“Jitney” by August Wilson. Through March 29; Seattle Repertory Theatre, 155 Mercer St., Seattle; 206-443-2222; seattlerep.org