JITNEY playing at The Old Globe through February 23rd elevates everyday life and work in a thoroughly entertaining, hilarious, and at times devastating look at the dignity of work, providing for those you love, and the ties that bind friends and family into a community.
Set in a jitney station, a dispatch office of a gypsy cab company that provides rides for those that are turned away by other cab companies. Retired mill boss Becker (Steven Anthony Jones) runs the station and tries to keep everything running smoothly with the other drivers even as the neighborhood is closing around them. Turnbo (Ray Anthony Thomas) is a consistent worker even if he is a meddling gossip whose temper sometimes gets the better of him. Fielding (Anthony Chisholm) is happiest when drinking and reminiscing about his past job as a custom tailor for musicians, and his marriage. Doub (Keith Randolph Smith) has a pragmatic bootstraps perspective to work, even if it’s not what the others always want to hear. The rest of the crew is rounded out by Philmore (Brian D. Coats) who works as a doorman at a nearby hotel, Shealy (Harvy Blanks) a bookie who uses the jitney’s phones to take his bets.
Youngblood (Amri Cheatom) is the youngest of the drivers, and when Turnbo isn’t trying to get under his skin, he is working to save up money for a surprise for his girlfriend Rena (Nija Okoro) and their young son. Youngblood is a Vietnam vet and trying to reconcile his next steps in life he is equal parts confident and vulnerable.
Becker has an unexpected visitor when his son Booster (Francois Battiste) is released after 20 years in prison. Having never visited his son in all that time, Becker is forced to confront the person that embodies his failure and whose past actions bring him shame.
Directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson the characters and their situations are treated with great empathy and tenderness. The rhythm of conversation and the casually friendly if antagonistic relationships between the characters feel true to life. It is easy to believe these scenes and snippets of conversation are being overheard as you peer through the window into this station.
The scenes between Jones and Battiste as estranged father and son are powerful in their despair over the love and loss each has contributed to the other’s lives.
Cheatom and Okoro have chemistry and affection as the young couple struggling to communicate. A hilarious scene between them where Youngblood is talking about a house and where to put the tv, and Rena has more practical concerns like school districts, and kitchen layouts show that for as much as things have changed since this premiered (1982)somethings may never change.
JITNEY is a stellar look at this community and the challenges they are facing. The play may be asking questions from the past about healing past wounds, trying to build better futures, and invest in those relationships that mean something to them but those are still things people are fighting for in the present. In the end the characters and audience both find that it’s the leap into the unknowable future that is the only way forward.