Tag Archives: Danius Jones

Fire, Fury, and Painful Memories Drive Wilson’s “Jitney”

Review: Jitney

 

By Perry Tannenbaum

Allowing for inflation and cost-of-living increases since 1977, fares at Becker’s Car Service seem to be fiercely competitive – so competitive that the five cab drivers at the core of August Wilson’s Jitney all seem to be barely scraping by. The drivers’ lounge, adorned with a decaying Ali-Frazier poster, has a ramshackle look to it with a dust-colored couch held together by generous swaths of duct tape.

We never see whether the drivers’ jitneys (slang for gypsy cabs) are in any better repair than this crumbling HQ, but the idea seeps in that the struggling black customers in the Hill district of Pittsburgh are in no position to press the point. Early on in this fine BNS Productions effort at Spirit Square, director Corlis Hayes pushes the pace hard enough for us to assume that we’re in the midst of an urban rush hour.

These are men in a hurry – who aren’t necessarily getting anywhere. Pretty much the same can be said for Wilson’s story until Becker himself arrives. He takes off a fedora hat and lays down a satchel, signs that he’s better off than his employees, but he takes turns answering the phone – a pay phone – and giving rides. Still not rushing his story along in his flurry of driver entrances and exits, Wilson has Becker announcing two key strands of the plot.

After keeping it from his drivers a little longer than he should, Becker tells Doub, his steadiest driver, that the city has earmarked the property for urban renewal. The Car Service office will be boarded up in a matter of weeks. If that weren’t enough upheaval, Becker’s son Booster is getting out of the slammer after serving 20 years for murder. Becker never visited his son even once during his incarceration, so this does not figure to be a joyous reunion.

If you’ve seen Wilson’s Fences recently, you will likely find echoes of Troy Maxson in the elder Becker’s sternness and stubbornness. If anything, the father-son chemistry will prove even more important here. But Becker is more of a people person, as he would need to be in running a business, and he has a few soft spots beneath his tough hide.

We see one of those when he gives Fielding, a former tailor who has destroyed himself with drink, yet one more chance to come back on the job and straighten himself out. Becker also shows strength and courage defusing a heated confrontation between Vietnam War vet Youngblood and the gossipy Turnbo, who has meddled in the younger driver’s domestic affairs, frustrated at not stealing his girlfriend Rena.

There’s a fascinating range of personalities and back stories among the core quintet of drivers plus the boss’s son. Baring their souls – and their motives – everybody seems to get a monologue. Nor do Hayes and lighting designer Tony Wright veil the kinship between these monologues and long, lyrical jazz solos. Hayes usually directs her actors to blow their solos straight into the Duke Energy Theater audience, while Wright intensifies the light where they deliver.

During the passionate showdown between Youngblood and Rena, where both have been right and wrong, each of the combatants has a heartfelt monologue. Yet Wilson had even more pure audacity in a casual scene where the often-comical Fielding meets the tightly-wound Booster. The playwright brashly showcases his virtuosity by unleashing two consecutive monologues, one by the rueful Fielding recalling his better days when he tailored suits for Billy Eckstein and Count Basie, followed by Booster’s recollection of his first hard lesson in life when, as a child, he had a vivid dream about riding a red bicycle.

With so many monologues so evenly distributed, you need a cast that’s strong, deep and – when Wilson digresses – engaging. Hayes and producer Rory D. Sheriff have definitely produced with this ensemble. Though he isn’t given free enough rein in the opening scene as Fielding (we should be sure that the $4 he borrows from Doub will go toward refilling his whisky flask), Gerard Hazleton shoulders enough of the drunkard’s comedy without letting us lose our warm feelings toward him.

There’s a little more comedy squeezed from the gossipy Turnbo by Tim Bradley, probably because his sleaziness and nosiness are so outrageous, but he also forces us to take him seriously when he goes ballistic on Youngblood. More on the periphery, James Lee Walker II gives the local numbers runner, Shealy, a dandified flair though we still empathize with his romantic difficulties. On the other end of the cunning spectrum, Danius Jones makes Philmore a singularly quirky and clueless passenger, attaining full dopiness only when he returns in his bellhop uniform.

Partly because they subtly echo the central father-son relationship, Doub and Youngblood are closer to the heart of Wilson’s drama than the men who garnish it with comedy or the colorful aspects of city life. Both of them are war vets, but Youngblood – if not as senseless as Turnbo makes him out to be – has been slightly warped by his Vietnam experience. Doub, traumatized and shaken to his core in the Korean War, has retained a stone-cold outlook beneath his cheery, avuncular demeanor.

With Keith Logan delivering Doub’s Korea monologue, it becomes the warmest moment of the evening, transcending its payload of advice for Youngblood. In its tacit acknowledgement of Youngblood’s essential goodness – and his confidence in Youngblood’s ability to benefit from sound advice – he’s a perfect model of the parenting skills that Becker lacks. Ironically, there are times when Logan’s acting is similarly exemplary for Jonathan Caldwell. While Caldwell brilliantly projects Youngblood’s immaturity and confusion, he could use a tip or two on either quickening his cue pickup or timing his delayed reactions.

Caldwell’s occasional awkwardness may slightly mar Youngblood’s scenes with Doub and Turnbo, but it meshes very well with Juanita Green in the confrontations with Rena. Hayes decrees a more conciliatory rapport between the lovers when we last see them than you might find in other productions, but Green keeps this becalmed closure from becoming saccharine.

Although Becker isn’t quite the perfect boss, he deals empathetically with his drivers, so there needs to be a powerful reason why he is so cold and cruel toward his son. John W. Price provides it indelibly in the most electrifying monologue of the night. The fire and thunder from Price as he’s excoriating Booster are unlike anything I’ve seen or heard from him before, fueled by white-hot fury and pain.

It’s an earthquake, and you can see Jermaine Gamble as Booster trembling amid the seismic shock. We get the idea from Gamble that Becker’s boy has grown up, hardened by prison, a fully formed yet scarred individual. Booster does fire back at his dad, but Gamble acutely calibrates the restraint and the hope that are wrapped into his resentments, almost like he’s still an adolescent in his father’s presence. It’s simply respect – all the more moving for its futility.

Within the space of two weeks, we’ve heard from two playwrights, Jeff Talbott in The Submission and August Wilson in Jitney, who have ignited their peak moments with the N-word. This one is far more unexpected – and shattering.

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Art and Business Clash in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”

Review: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

By Perry Tannenbaum

Few playwrights, black or white, would write a line so richly laden with poignancy as “Somewhere the moon has fallen through a window and broken into thirty pieces of silver” only to bury it in the silent text of his prologue. Just to ensure that such a line would be spoken out loud, Tennessee Williams would have temporarily deputized one of his characters as his mouthpiece so that this line would have a life in our ears.

Yet somehow, the “Somewhere” line dropped into the intro of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom perfectly describes the setting of August Wilson’s 1984 drama. Ma Rainey, her entourage, and her jazz quartet gather at a one o’clock rendezvous with Ma’s nervous manager, Irwin, and record studio boss Sturdyvant. While Irwin is careful not to rouse Ma’s mighty temperament and ego, Sturdyvant’s regard for Ma extends no further than to the pieces of silver her recordings can stream into his coffers.

So I can think of a personal as well as an artistic reason why Wilson elected to inter his telling line. A man who conceives of a ten-play series of plays that will chronicle the history of his people through every decade of the 20th century probably wouldn’t preserve, shepherd, and showcase a 30-pieces line like that with the same urgent care that we might. Or frankly, surveying the crew he assembles for this 1927 studio session, Wilson could have soberly concluded that none of these folk, black or white, had the discernment or eloquence to deliver such a lyrical line.

What comes out of Ma’s mouth is almost always salty, bitter, and infused with rage, while her nephew Sylvester, a stutterer, struggles to say anything at all – even as Ma, laying on more pressure, insists that he deliver the spoken intro to her “Black Bottom” recording. These are the two people who present the most daunting challenges for the whites in the recording studio.

But as the split layout of the Pease Auditorium stage faithfully discloses in Jennifer O‘Kelly’s shambling set design, this CPCC Theatre production of Ma Rainey is very much an upstairs-downstairs story. We spend as much time downstairs in the musicians’ rehearsal room – Cutler on trombone, Toledo on piano, Slow Drag on bass, and Levee on trumpet – and the latter half of the tragic denouement unfolds there.

Needless to say, there is as much tension downstairs between the musicians as there is between Ma, the truculent Sturdyvant, and the ever-appeasing Irvin. Cutler seems to run the show downstairs from a business standpoint, accountable for getting the band to show up on time, distributing the pay, and counting out the downbeats. Levee is the young buck with the big ideas, confident that his arrangements of Ma’s tunes will be preferred to her own, and planning to sign on independently with Sturdyvant so he can record his own songs with his own band.

Although the inevitability of a clash between Ma and Levee isn’t exactly trumpeted when we first meet them, it is deep-set into the structure of the script. Both Ma and Levee arrive significantly later to the gig than Sturdyvant or Cutler expect – though Ma’s arrival is later, louder, and more tumultuous. So the outcome of these prima donnas’ collision is also fairly predictable.

Since at least 1998, Corlis Hayes has been involved in several August Wilson plays around town, including The Piano Lesson, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, and Fences as both a player and a director. Although line problems cropped up occasionally in the rehearsal room, lengthening the production to a running time of nearly 2:20 plus intermission, Hayes directs with a sure feel for Ma Rainey’s moody, spasmodic pacing, and Tony Wright’s fight choreography aptly points up the climaxes.

Jonavan Adams first teamed up with Hayes in 2008, when I felt that The Piano Lesson should have been more forte. As Levee, there are welcome times when Adams goes fortissimo on us, particularly in his mighty monologues and crises. Yet there are still a few moments when we’re getting to know Levee that Hayes should whisking Adams downstage so that we can hear him better and other moments that Adams zips through unclearly. More forgivable toward the end are the moments when Levee is desperately talking to himself.

Clearly, this is a man who is haunted by his childhood and partially imprisoned by it – very emblematic of his people.

Pitted against Adams as Ma is Shar Marlin, who made her first splash on the local scene six years ago as the matriarch in George C. Wolfe’s “Last Mama-on-the-Couch Play” and hasn’t looked back. With both Bessie Smith and Zora Neale Hurston’s Blues Speak Woman in her rearview mirror, Marlin takes on another outsized personality with perfect aplomb. Called upon to sing Rainey’s signature blues, Marlin delivers ornery volume laced with gutsy growls. And believe me, the force of her first entrance is worth waiting for.

With trombonist Tyrone Jefferson tackling the roles of Cutler and this production’s musical director, the jazz behind Rainey – and behind the scenes downstairs – has a unique authenticity. When Cutler gives his oft-repeated “One… Two…You know what to do” cue, three musicians respond from somewhere offstage while he himself delivers the trombone fills. Jefferson, the arranger and musical director behind numerous recent productions, proves to be quite capable as an actor.

Gagan Hunter turns pianist Toledo into a slightly starchy back-porch philosopher, which seems about right, and soft-spoken Willie Stratford – who really needs to be brought downstage – brings an abundance of cool to Slow Drag. In real life, Ma Rainey was indeed the Mother of the Blues, and there was also a notable New Orleans bassist named Slow Drag Pavageau who got his nickname from his dancing prowess.

The white folk are both exploiters, but it’s Tom Scott as Sturdyvant who is far and away the more cruel and noxious. His presence is so toxic that we can easily forget the looming clash between Ma and Levee. Scott always seems to be close to boiling over when he considers Ma’s sense of majesty and entitlement. Hank West as Irvin is the conciliator, but just when he verges on becoming sympathetic, a thin steely mean streak appears in a very nuanced portrayal.

No such subtlety beclouds Carol J. McKIenith’s wantonness as Dussie Mae, Ma’s companion. But there’s an interesting combination of meekness and determination, pride and shame, in Danius Jones’s portrayal of the stuttering Sylvester that makes him unexpectedly rewarding.

In another burst of unheard poetry, Wilson quotes blues great Blind Lemon Jefferson in his epigraph. Because “they tore the railroad down,” sings Jefferson, “the Sunshine Special can’t run.” Confronting this catastrophe, Jefferson plans to “build me a railroad of my own.” Ma and Levee have the same yearnings deep in their bones, to break away and blaze their own musical trails. But it’s still 1927, the traditional tracks are still sturdy, and their people don’t own them.