I Miss August

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

I miss August Wilson.

It's not five minutes into South Coast Rep's revival of Wilson's play Jitney, that I'm reminded of the playwright's economy, elegance, and scope.

First, there's the brilliance of the setting - a jitney station. For those of us not from Pittsburgh in the 1970's, a Jitney station is a gypsy cab headquarters. Manned by six African-American drivers, it's home to the pay telephone that dispatches these taxis to Pittsburgh's Hill district. It's this phone, an old rotary model - remember those? - that serves as the play's driving force and an ever present character. As it rings it sends the men out into world and brings them back again with tales of the neighborhood.

It's a setup that any playwright would drool over. Here's a quick efficient way to get character's cycling on and offstage; each time with new stories; each time in new combinations. And when the scene needs punctuation or interruption - the payphone rings. Within a few minutes Wilson has introduced not only the characters but given us a window to an entire neighborhood.

No sooner are you reminded of Wilson's craft than you are awed by the scope of his vision. Jitney, written in 1982, was the first of his ten-play cycle, chronicling the African-American experience in the twentieth century. Even saying it - Wilson's accomplishment is astounding. He completed his cycle shortly before he died from liver cancer in 2005.

Jitney, like so many of Wilson's plays, revolves around fathers and sons. Like a jazz musician, he riffs on this theme, weaving into each character's story: whether it's Youngblood, the young Vietnam vet trying to find a future for his young family or Becker, the play's quintessential pater familias, reluctantly reconnecting with his son who's fresh out of the penitentiary with not a bit of penitence.

Wilson tackles this theme first with the whole ensemble: many voices, many stories. It's here that the South Coast production is at its best. We hear the rhythm of the voices and Wilson's tales flow easily with humor and verve. When the play focuses down to its epic duet - the confrontation between father and son - we still hear Wilson's tune but it feels a bit labored. As many have said, August Wilson's gift was bringing an almost classical structure to the African-American experience. And while the South Coast production nails the tone, it struggles to handle this weight and the emotional depth of the conflict between Becker and his son. Wilson's words feel leaden and the mercurial shifts from anger to love to betrayal don't have the dynamic punch required.

What's novel, at least for Los Angeles, is this production is traveling, not across the country but from Orange County to Pasadena. Pasadena Playhouse is presenting South Coast Rep's production.

Bottom line on Jitney, if you were lucky enough to see it at the Taper back in 2000, savor the memory. If you've never seen it, or Wilson's other plays, jump at this chance.

Jitney plays from June 21 through July 15 at the Pasadena Playhouse.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Run time; 2 hours 35 minutes, with one intermission

Banner image: Charlie Robinson and Montae Russell in South Coast Repertory's 2012 production of Jitney by August Wilson. Photo by Henry DiRocco