Saturday, August 20, 2022

PPTC Packs an Emotional Wallop with August in August

 

Dionysius Westbrooks, Kevin Brown, Les Howard, Mike Traylor & Chuck Timbers. Credit: Courtesy Photo

    Pittsburgh is proud of playwright and native son, August Wilson. There’s an entire arts and entertainment center named for him, and I‘d bet there’s an August Wilson Street somewhere in the city. On the horizon, I foresee a bridge named after him, following in the footsteps of other Pittsburgh luminaries Rachel Carson, Andy Warhol and Roberto Clemente They each have their names ascribed to three of the bridges over the Allegheny, so why not one for Wilson as well?

    Then, there’s something even newsworthy. On Saturday, August 13, the house in which Wilson was born reopened as a cultural center after a 17-yearlong renovation project. Both Denzel Washington and Costanza Romero, Wilson’s wife. were on hand for hand for the grand opening.

    A few years back, I was thrilled to sit through a Pittsburgh Playwright Theatre Company production of Gem of the Ocean, staged at 1839 Wylie Ave, a few blocks away from the Wilson house. That was before the recent renovations when I was excited just to be seated so near to the playwright’s birthplace.

    This week, I was even more impressed when I saw how the building and grounds have been transformed during a viewing of Jitney, now getting a staging by PPTC, again outdoors next to the Wilson House. To say the house and grounds have been enhanced is an understatement, and, although I didn’t get much of a look inside the building, I intend to go back for a look around some time soon.

    I have a fond place in my memory of Wilson. I actually got to speak to him briefly (he didn’t seem impressed) when he was in town for the premier of his King Hedley II. At that time, I was also able to get his autograph (along with that of Roscoe Lee Browne, who had a role in the play).

    Later, when construction of the August Wilson Center in Downtown Pittsburgh was nearly completed, I took a media tour of the architecturally interesting building and went on to write about the Center for Pathfinders Magazine, a travel glossy “for people of color” as the publisher put it.

    Familiar with about 6 of Wilson’s plays, either performed on stage or film, I anticipated some sort of numinous experience when I sat down in my seat just a few feet away from Wilson’s birth house. With all this Wilsoniona in my background, I felt a special relationship to the playwright, something I shared with no other dramatist.

    As the audience filed into the outdoor theater space, sound designer Ben Cain pumped out some familiar and welcoming 70s hits prior to the show and did even more to fill in the gaps between scenes with some wonderful jazz clips, also from the 70s I presume. Note: The play is set in 1977 in Pittsburgh’s Hill District making the musical selections time appropriate.

    Wilson begins his powerful (or as my theater companion put it, brutal) drama gently with some humorous verbal give and take between the jitney (freelance taxi) drivers who hang out at Becker’s waiting for the phone to ring from some potential passenger looking for a ride. Soon, two of the drivers, Youngblood, a youthful man trying to find his way in the world, played vividly by Dionysius Westbrooks, begins bantering with Turnbo (Les Howard), a gossip monger who seems to get under Youngblood’s skin a bit too much and too often.

Mike Traylor as Fielding Credit: Courtesy Photo

    Howard amazes with his multi-faceted character portrayal. He contributes a lot of the play’s humor but is also quite capable of more somber musings. For humor-down-pat and right on, Mike Traylor plays the role of the alcohol addicted, Fielding, with a superb balance, neither going overboard or underplaying the role of an inveterate drunk. Honestly, I had a difficult time keeping my eyes off him whenever he was on stage enjoying his body language, facial expressions and quick-witted repartee.

    As Doub, Chuck Timbers is a mellowing force, adept at keeping warring factions at bay while Boykin Anthony as Pilmore is a soft-tempered man who’s put in six years working as a doorman at Pittsburgh’s illustrious William Penn Hotel. For alpha male bravado with a mercenary touch, Roosevelt Watts as Sealy seems to prefer running numbers to make a living instead of joining the crew of jitney drivers.

    In this bravado cast of actors, the lone female role of Rena is played by the curvaceous Elexa Hanner. A somewhat sassy woman who still has hopes for her relationship with Youngblood, she seems to have recently advanced into adulthood with maternal responsibilities and now places restrictions on Youngblood’s past youthful wantonness.     Costume designer Charyl El-Walker creates some colorful outfits that further enhance Hanner’s physical allure.

    Interestingly, the two focal characters in the play are not jitney drivers but a father and son duo with significant animosity toward one another. Becker, the father, played by stand-in Kevin Brown the evening of my attendance, is a hardworking man who put many years in the steel mills, operates the jitney station and is facing eviction as part of the urban redevelopment programs of the 1970s.

Kevin Brown & Jonathan Berry as Becker and Booster

    Always a bit anxious in his quest to keep his disparate band of irascible drivers under rein, Becker carries long-standing emotional wounds inflicted on him by his son’s impulsive homicide provoked by an amorous adventure gone wrong.

    His son, Booster, played by the handsome Jonathan Berry, is just out of Western State Penitentiary after a 20-year incarceration. He harbors a grudge against his father for not emotionally supporting his mother during his trial and aftermath when she sunk into a deep despair.

    Booster, however, is torn by the fact that his father worked hard to support his family and made many sacrifices for their well-being. Dressed in formal black pants and a white shirt, he looks a bit too physically robust and emotionally vigorous for someone just let out of jail after completing a 20-year sentence.

    As Booster, Berry gets high marks for performance and especially for his emotional meltdown at the end of the play when he descends into deep mourning for his profound loss. His bereavement is so heart-felt it reverberates out from the stage in a powerful torrent of torment.

    Artistic director Mark Clayton Southers directs the play, and I was particularly impressed with his pacing and timing of the show, which allows for lucid comprehension of the narrative. He also designed the set, appropriate to the period of the 1970s down to the Mellon Bank calendar on the wall turned to October 1977.

    Jitney is one of ten plays in August Wilson’s The Pittsburgh Cycle, a series that charts the African American experience throughout the twentieth century. All are set in a different decade in Pittsburgh’s Hill District except for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, which is set in Chicago. The set chronicles the cultural shifts and stresses of African-American experience throughout the 20th century.

    Among other things, Wilson's plays earned him two Pulitzers and a Tony Award, and many feel that Jitney is one of his best playwriting efforts.

    You now have a rare chance to see a performance of one of Wilson’s master works at the site of his birthplace. The Pittsburgh Playwright Theatre Company’s production runs through September 18 at the August Wilson House, 1727 Bedford Street in Pittsburgh’s Hill District.  For more information or to purchase tickets, visit https://www.pghplaywrights.org/jitney/


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