Each time I see a Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Co. production of an August Wilson play (I think they're up to seven out of the 10-play "Pittsburgh Cycle"), I come away with something new. And what I got out of this riveting production of Jitney, one of Wilson's first full-length plays, is that, over and above everything else, Wilson was an impressionist. What Claude Monet did with paint, August Wilson does with words.
In Jitney, Wilson has dispensed with a plot, really giving us only a setting -- a jitney station in the Hill District in 1977. He then stuffs it full with a bright collection of characters: the young man with a hair-trigger, trying to turn his life around; a couple of older, seasoned men a bit bloodied but still unbowed by life; a wasp-tongued gossip who sees everyone's flaws but his own; and several more, almost all male, populating this mise en scene.
The fact that these characters tend toward "type" doesn't really matter, because all of this is just the preliminary for what Wilson does next. Like an artist with several pots of brightly colored paint in front of him, he dips and swirls and splashes all these characters onstage in endlessly shifting patterns.
But even that doesn't really describe it. Monet wasn't using his mixture of colors to re-create, for instance, Rouen Cathedral at sunset; he used the colors, their juxtaposition and the cathedral itself to create an intense experience inside viewers' heads. Wilson is using the words, his characters and the way they interact to create a vivid, almost volcanic, impression of, well, life -- nothing less than what it feels like to be alive.
With the possible exception of Joe Turner's Come and Gone, Jitney is my favorite Wilson play, and this Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Co. is certainly my favorite production of it. And a huge part of that is because director Mark Clayton Southers has gathered a collection of Pittsburgh's best actors: Les Howard, Joshua Elijah Reese, Lonzo Green, Wali Jamal, Kevin Brown, Jonathan Berry and Genna Styles ... and, oh yeah, he also recruited Sala Udin, to re-create the role of Becker that Udin created back in 1982, at the request of his childhood friend, August Wilson.
This cast and this company have done Udin's friend proud.
Jitney continues through May 30. Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Co. 542 Penn Ave., Downtown. 412-394-3353 or www.pghplaywrights.com
- Impression of life: Joshua Elijah Reese and Genna Styles in Pittsburgh Playwrights' Jitney