Even before going to plays became a lavishly compensated duty, I found myself resisting the great upward sweep of audiences at final curtain. Lines may have been dropped, sets might have wobbled, and the cast could have stomped through the dance numbers like horses killing rats, but the hometown crowd greets the final curtain on its feet, hollering approval. I always think of this in sexual terms: Theatergoers don't put out for everyone they meet, so why go all the way with every show? Why not save it for someone special? Can't we all have a nice time at the theater without lying to ourselves and the performers that, say, Hairspray was scooped and shaped right out of divinity itself?
In the past year, a couple of shows have inspired me to leap to my feet. After Fifth of July, I stood and cheered but nobody else did. The Kansas City Repertory Theatre's Jitney, however, had everybody up and whooping as though Oprah were handing out Saturns. This show gets the love that too many shows get but this is different. Jitney earns it.
This is the first local production of an August Wilson play since his death last year, so a weight hangs over the evening. This had me worried: In recent years, some of the Rep shows dealing with African-Americans have been stiffly reverential, lighted like heaven itself and populated with actors whose stabs at nobility too often left them looking like they were posing for stamps.
Fortunately, last season, A Raisin in the Sun had heat enough to feel alive. Like Raisin (and Wilson's Two Trains Running a while back), Jitney is directed by Lou Bellamy, and it's better by an order of magnitude. It courses with life and burns with feeling. It jokes, and it jives, and even though it's more fun than half a dozen comedies, it's built around a scene of father-son confrontation that's raw in its pain, epic in its scope and shattering in its conclusion.
Set in the dispatch lounge of a gypsy cab company in 1970s Pittsburgh, Jitney introduces us to Becker, the hardworking proprietor, and his fleet of drivers: a drunk, a buttinski, a young man just learning how hard it is to buy a house. They gab, squabble and shuttle their passengers around. Some of them know that the city plans to board up their building (a theme familiar from Two Trains Running); all of them know that Becker's son will soon be released from prison, a full 20 years after he committed his violent crime. In the two-plus hours we spend with them, we see that their struggles center on one tough question: What does it mean to be somebody?
For Becker (the excellent Brain Anthony Wilson), this means work, honesty and doing what you can within the rules, even when those rules change.
His son, Booster (Jacinto Taras Riddick), used to buy this. Booster speaks movingly of how his father used to seem "a big man." But one day, Booster saw the white landlord curse out Becker for being late with the rent. Instead of knocking the landlord on his ass which Booster ached to see Becker just took the abuse, running an internal cost-benefit analysis that Booster has never understood: placing family welfare over personal pride. For Booster, to be somebody means not to let anybody else say who you are.
Sadly, this led Booster to conflict, then to violence and then to jail. And when he gets out, he faces more misery still: a fight with Becker (in an unforgettable scene). The actors bull through pages of text, hard truths coming almost too fast to chart. Becker's denunciations of violence are flint to the steel of Booster's justifications for it: What else can make you big in a world set up to shrink you?
For all this, the show is often comic, a showcase for talk. Much of it is given to the pleasures of storytelling: When one character has a good tale to share, the others listen and laugh, often as closely as we do.
Bellamy's direction is nimble, but the press-night audience sometimes didn't keep up, still laughing warmly well after the jokes had given way. Some mugging encourages this, though the actors are otherwise exemplary. James Craven is stellar as the nosy Turnbo, a comic figure with tragic shadings. Chuck Patterson's rubber-limbed drunk routine is as funny as his character's stories about tailoring suits for Billy Eckstine are heartbreaking. The costumes match the characters, and Vicki M. Smith's set is well-detailed, laced with pipes and unsentimentally grimed; through windows, the dying neighborhood looms, buildings are boarded, and that same junked car sits there day in and day out. Also free from sentiment is Michelle Habeck's lighting; she bathed A Raisin in the Sun in nostalgic golds that didn't fit that show's realities, but here she gives us '70s days and nights without fuss.
Whereas Raisin comes to us as a lofty announcement of all that black folks are, Jitney, like most of Wilson's work, is lighter. Rather than the weight of reverence, we get the weight of life. This is drama, not history, and it's worth leaping up for.