Dialing Up the Drama: This Jitney never phones it in.
Dialing Up the Drama: This Jitney never phones it in.

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Jitney is a play of such modest ambitions that it’s a little startling to find it achieving so much at Ford’s Theatre. Jennifer Nelson’s staging—which brings to life a run-down gypsy cab station and its gossiping, feuding drivers—is as vigorous as its performances are hearty. And if playwright August Wilson didn’t provide much more than a set of character sketches for the director and cast to work with, his writing is still evocative enough of a distinctive place (Pittsburgh’s Hill District) and time (1977) that an audience can hardly help reveling in the atmospherics.

It helps, of course, that Jitney turned out to be the first installment in an epic, decade-by-decade chronicle of the glory, anger, and frustration of being black in 20th-century America. Becker, the jitney cab station proprietor embodied by Fred Strother with calm rectitude at Ford’s, was the model for a half-dozen patriarchs Wilson would later set to arguing with headstrong sons much like Craig Wallace’s angry, barely keeping-it-together ex-con. And other characters find similar echoes in subsequent Wilson works. No, their squabbles here don’t amount to as much as they might, but if the implications of the squabbling will be broadened by ancestors and progeny in other plays, perhaps that’s compensation.

In any event, there’s more to this production than just the play. At Ford’s, Jitney is not only a showcase for some of D.C.’s more accomplished performers but also a stab at a new and salutary direction for a house that has traditionally booked feather-light fare and cast most of its leading roles in New York. That the production boasts an all-black D.C.-based cast, a D.C. director (who’s both black and a woman), a local design team, and is produced in association with D.C.’s African Continuum Theatre Company, makes it downright remarkable.

And the fact that it’s bringing black and white (not to mention local and national) audiences together in the house where Lincoln was shot certainly counts as a bonus. Ford’s has long been a tourist magnet with an audience more reflective of the nation’s demographics than of the city’s. But the near-sellout crowd that gave Jitney a standing ovation on Saturday night looked to be evenly split racially and, judging from intermission chatter, was as strongly local as most crowds at Arena Stage or the Shakespeare Theatre.

So perhaps in Jitney, the longtime tourist trap has happened upon a workable combination of artistry and oeuvre. August Wilson, who died in 2005 shortly after completing his 10-play cycle, is one of a handful of American playwrights who actually means something at the box office these days. That’s especially true in D.C., where in the last few years Studio Theatre, Arena Stage, the Kennedy Center, and African Continuum have collectively been mounting a sort of informal Wilson in Washington Festival (his Gem of the Ocean opened Thursday at Arena), to which Ford’s is a late and welcome addition. As with the Shakespeare in Washington Fest, it’s the author’s name that’s the draw.

And what did Wilson provide for his fans in Jitney? Well, for starters, a raft of generously complex characters. Becker and Booster, the upright father and wayward son who’ve spent decades apart, will prove to have more catching up to do than their personalities—unyielding in different ways—will allow them to fit into their remaining time together. Booster’s done perhaps too much thinking while in the pen, which makes him the polar opposite of Turnbo (Doug Brown), a casually malicious gossip who doesn’t do enough thinking before he opens his mouth. A frequent visitor to the storefront cab stand is strong-willed Rena (Jessica Frances Dukes), who wants not to have to mother her ambitious but impulsive boyfriend (KenYatta Rogers), one of Becker’s drivers. Hangers-on include a drunk (David Emerson Toney) who recalls his days as haberdasher to Duke Ellington; a charmingly shifty numbers runner (Michael Anthony Williams) with commitment issues, a hotel doorman (Addison Switzer) who’s never missed a day of work or an opportunity to party; and a gentle giant named Doub (Cleo Reginald Pizana) who’s drifting gently toward retirement.

From these folks erupt a pair of rip-snorting single-scene arguments that in Nelson’s briskly efficient staging amount to one-act plays—father versus son over the past; lover versus lover over the future—as well as a confrontation between cabbies that nearly turns lethal when a gun abruptly makes an appearance. The play doesn’t want for incident, but a through-line seems beyond its then fledgling playwright’s grasp.

Still, even in this, his first fully realized play, Wilson’s gift for lyrical language is evident in the long, looping anecdotes his characters recite, and the blues-inflected phrasing that lends grace to, say, a son’s recollection of the swath his father once cut through the world (“you walk into a barbershop, fill up the whole place”). These may be poor folks, but the playwright sees to it that their experiences are richly voiced.

At Ford’s, designer Tony Cisek has given them a persuasively dilapidated storefront to inhabit, with towering windows that seem smudged with the residue of decades of idle chatter. The floor’s linoleum has so much dirt ground into it, that it’s hard to tell what color other than gray it could ever have been. The furniture is mismatched and falling apart. But if the place is dingy, its walls have heard plenty of tales, and a couple of hours soaking them up in Jitney proves to be time well-spent.