The Black Rep

The Black Rep continues its 45th season with its latest staging of Jitney by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson. The production runs through May 29th at the Edison Theatre on the campus of Washington University.

Twenty years have come and gone since The St. Louis Black Repertory Company last presented August Wilson’s acclaimed 1982 masterpiece Jitney on its main stage.  The unforgettable 2002 production, which took place the year of the play’s 20th anniversary,  featured Black Rep Founder and Producing Director Ron Himes in the role of Booster.

For that show, director Ron OJ Parson magnificently conducted the orchestra of rhythm within the dialogue.  Staying on tempo with words is as important to an effective and intentional presentation of an August Wilson play as it is for singers, dancers and band members to stay on beat during a musical.  

Jitney again made its way to the Black Rep stage when the show opened at Washington University’s Edison Theatre as part of the company’s Season 45 lineup on Friday, May 13 and continues through May 29th.

Jitney represents the 1970s in Wilson’s cycle of 10 plays that depict Black life in each decade of the 20th century. It studies the lives of a handful of drivers who operate in Wilson’s hometown of Pittsburgh. They provide transportation for residents who rely on an alternative to traditional public transportation and taxi services in a neighborhood that has fallen victim to urban blight – and is on the front end of gentrification.

This latest production is part of The Black Rep’s 30-plus year legacy of ensuring Wilson’s work has a consistent home.  

Doing so is no easy feat. Even more difficult is assuming a primary role in an August Wilson play – with its robust dialogue –  at the eleventh hour. Such was the case for Ron Himes. Himes, who also directs the play, stepped in to play Turnbo just days ahead of opening. It was a full circle moment of sorts for Himes, who played the son of a jitney driver in the 2002 showing.

The production also stars Kevin Brown, J. Samuel Davis, Olajuwon Davis, Phillip Dixon, Richard Harris, Edward L. Hill, Alex Jay and Robert A. Mitchell.

Through his breathtaking plays that feel more like compositions, Wilson amplifies the natural melodies and harmonies that are universal to Black American dialect – and reminds audiences that Black people can instinctively turn a phrase like nobody’s business.

What is often reduced to “slang” and “jive talk,” Wilson brilliantly and rightfully frames it as the music and poetry that it is. His way of doing so requires words landing with razor sharp precision – and it makes Himes’ take on Turbo with such a quick turnaround all the more impressive.

There are a few hiccups with respect to chemistry and flow – probably because of the last-minute casting modification – that caused a first-week show to drag a bit. The kinks with the rhythm will work themselves out because the 2022 production has a solid foundation, particularly among the Black Rep veterans in the ensemble.

Himes’ Turnbo is one of his shining moments as an actor. He nails the role of the man of a certain age who can’t seem to keep his nose out of anyone’s business who, “just talks about what I know.”

The performance of J. Samuel Davis as Fielding is also a triumph. The late Tony-nominated actor Thomas Jefferson Byrd was mesmerizing in the role in the 2002 production. And for any actor other than Davis, filling Byrd’s shoes would have been impossible. Davis’ portrayal of Fielding, a gifted tailor whose alcohol dependency led to a fall from grace, is delivered with impeccable authenticity and humor.

Olajuwon Davis (no relation to J. Samuel Davis) also provides an impressive take on Youngblood – a young military veteran who took up driving to make ends meet as he works to build a life for himself and his family. It is Olajuwon Davis’ first role on The Black Rep stage as a grown man. He was last seen as a youngster in their production of the musical Sarafina back in 2008. And as he flexes his chops in Jitney – particularly the scenes displaying conflict with Himes’ character – Olajuwon Davis further legitimizes the Black Rep as an institution where talent is cultivated as well as displayed.  

Harlan D. Penn’s scenic design for Jitney is flawlessly accurate – from the dusty furniture and boarded up windows to the grimy linoleum floors typical of rundown storefronts of the era.  The sound design of Justin Smitz relies on music that is more from the 1960s than the 1970s to set the tone, which plays well when one considers that most of the characters are men past their prime and set in their ways from the days of old.

With their 2022 presentation of Jitney, The Black Rep once again proves itself to be an institution where Wilson’s plays can be performed in a manner that honors the work – and the people that provided Wilson with his primary source of inspiration.

The Black Rep’s production of August Wilson’s Jitney continues through May 29th at the Edison Theatre on the campus of Washington University (6445 Forsyth). For additional information, visit www.theblackrep.org or call (314) 534-3807. 

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