Monday, January 27, 2014

Jitney—Portland Playhouse at the Winningstad Theatre—downtown Portland


To Become A Man

This drama, by the great August Wilson, is part of his 10-play Cycle, is performing at the Winningstad Theatre and is produced by the Portland Playhouse.  It is directed by G. Valmont Thomas, a veteran of his plays, and will run through February 16th.  For more information go to their site at www.portlandplayhouse.org or call 503-488-5822.

This is the seventh play I’ve seen in Wilson’s eye-opening, 10-play cycle, one for each decade.  This one concentrates on the late 70’s in Pittsburg.  The setting is a “car service” establishment, Jitney, or unlicensed taxi office in a poorer part of the town, set to be renovated.  His plays always revolve around places and people (or composites of people) he knew in real life.  But Wilson’s plays are really universal as well, as all humans can identify with or know the characters he’s talking about.  And their plights are our struggles, too, in trying to make something of oneself, to become a human being in this big, badddasss world.

The shop is Becker’s and becomes, for a couple hours plus, a microcosm of the world.  Among his faithful employees are Doub (Mujahid Abdul-Rashid), a fairly stable man, haunted somewhat by having to stack dead bodies during the Korean Conflict; and a very unstable Turnbo (Victor Mack), who jams his nose into everybody’s business and, like a wayward rocket, might explode at any minute, at anyone, anywhere.

Then, there is the cocky, young bull, Youngblood (Rodney Hicks) who, on the surface, seems to stray from his woman, Rena (Ashely Williams), an appealing young lady who just wants to make a good home for their child.  Fielding (Wrick Jones) is the company drunk, haunted by the loss of his woman and, in a dream, is stumbling toward Heaven, where she is reaching out for him.  Shealy is the con artist, running a Numbers racket out of the office, always looking for the next scheme to get him a buck more.  And Philmore (Ricardy Charles Fabre), is a flashy dresser, who seems not to fit into this make-shift world.

The King of this realm is a straight-laced, no-nonsense gentleman called Becker (Kevin Kenerly).  He has his rules in his kingdom and is pretty much unforgiving if they are broken.  But he has a soft spot, too, in trying to hold his mates together, as they rail against the storm.  His world may be falling down around him but he is stalwart to the end.
Into his world appears his son, Booster (Vin Shambry), now released from prison, after twenty years, for killing a white man, the father of a daughter he was falsely accused of raping.  Becker never visited his son in the pen, convinced this wrongful act shamed his wife, Booster’s mother, to an early death.  They are now estranged with seemly no way back.  They both seem to be living in dreams of what could or should have been, instead of putting the past behind them and going forward anew.

This is story-telling in the old-fashioned sense, where you have real, flesh-and-blood, down-to-earth, people we can connect with, who may have just walked out of your own neighborhood, exposing real stories of the human condition.  The plot is something you can simply hang your hat on, but the dreams, back-stories, monologues are where the true tales lie.  That is the strength of Wilson’s plays, in that it is his characters that are the meat-and-potatoes of them.  In their dreams we fly and, in soaring to great heights, we may be able to achieve something better than we have.  Perhaps, in seeing the plights of others, we will see ourselves, and know we need to change to become more than the sum of our parts.  The end may not be the purpose, but how we make the journey.

This ensemble cast is very strong.  Kenerly, as the patriarch of the clan, is especially good, providing us with a complex man, with all his warts in tow, but lending us someone we can embrace.  Shambry, as his son, who you want to cheer at and curse at, at the same time, is winning in his attempt to put his life back together.  Mack is always exciting to watch, as he electrifies the stage every time he comes on.

Hicks, having played to great effect, Rev. King last Fall, again is good as the well-meaning but errant novice to the pack.  Jones, a mainstay for years on the Portland stage, is very touching as his turn as the troubled sot.  The rest of the cast is also uniformly good, showing Wilson and Portland Playhouse audiences another exceptional show.

Thomas, as the director, certainly knows his material and does a terrific job of leading this exceptional cast.  His pacing is just right, highlighting the quieter moments and monologues, and quickening the pace for the more prickly-charged scenes.  He is a fine spokes-person for Wilson’s stories.

I recommend this play.  If you do go, please tell them Dennis sent you.