That Seventies Show

August Wilson's Jitney dresses for excess; Stephen King's Shawshank Redemption tries the stage

Perhaps I should not obsess over the costumes in the Penumbra Theatre's production of Jitney. This is, after all, a play that has grown heavy with history, being the first script penned by August Wilson and having debuted on the Penumbra Stage in 1984. Sixteen years and two Pulitzers later, Wilson has retooled his script: In this version, a loaded gun is not fired, and an unfortunate exclamation point (the play was originally titled Jitney!) has been removed. There is a momentousness to Penumbra's production, as though history itself were being revisited and expanded upon, that certainly deserves more attention than the layers of denim and mustard-colored leather that drape the Penumbra's cast.

But can I be blamed for my misplaced attention? This play details several days in the lives of a half-dozen gypsy cabdrivers in Pittsburgh in 1977--a magnificent year for habiliment and its excesses. So when actor Sonja Parks struts out onto the Penumbra stage, dressed in faded bell-bottoms with heart-shaped back pockets, a thick, three-colored knit belt, a mahogany pinstriped polyester blouse, and enormous silver hoop earrings--well, briefly it is difficult to focus on her dialogue.

And oh, to be actor Abdul Salaam El Razzac, whose sartorial extravagance is as much a part of his dapper numbers-running character as his molasses-slow line delivery and his swaggering gait. Even a simple action, such as answering a telephone, becomes a heroic act of scene stealing, with El Razzac's silky intonation, flashing grin, suede hat, and diamond-encrusted finger rings battling for attention.

In some sense, Jitney is a triumph of style over content. Even this early Wilson evinces a fine ear for dialogue (favorite moment, from a man ogling a girlie magazine: "If I get to heaven and she ain't there, I'm going to ask God to send me straight to Hell.") and a dazzling sense of character. But the intertwined stories in Jitney could have been culled from a half-dozen of the overwrought, morally simplistic gospel musicals that sporadically breeze into town on the "chitlin' circuit" to tell melodramatic stories of African-American life. Parks, for example, plays a young mother who suspects her boyfriend (Ahanti Young) of having an affair with her sister--suspicions assisted by the incessant prattle of a gossiping older man (Jim Craven). When she finally confronts her errant beau, one nearly expects organ music to well up as tambourines fly from offstage into the hands of the arguing couple. In fact, there are moments when a showstopping musical number would have tightened Wilson's storytelling: An argument between an ex-con son (Lester Purry) and his bitterly disappointed father (James Austin Williams) is as elongated and frustrating as any real-world squabble, and might have played better as a soaring song-and-dance routine. Put to music, Jitney could even reclaim its lost exclamation point.

To director Lou Bellamy's credit, this current production of the play rarely behaves as though it were dramatically heavy. Penumbra's Jitney has a lightness and sweetness to it, such that the script's overstrained dramatic scenes are outnumbered by winningly silly, comic moments. The production opens with the fidgety wah-wah guitar and blaring horns of the theme to Shaft, includes a character locking and popping like Fred "Rerun" Berry, and pitches Craven's rumormongering at such an alarming volume that it is a wonder the actor doesn't spit his vocal cords over the heads of his fellow cast members and directly onto the audience.

This leaves little room for histrionic chest-beating, and thank goodness: Some of the marvelous denim costumes are so tight that they would simply shred and fly into tatters if the play's performers flexed too many of their dramatic muscles, and that would be a tragedy. If I get to heaven and those costumes aren't there, I'm going to ask God to send me straight to Hell.

 

While Jitney has lost part of its title in the past few years, Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption has reclaimed its longer titled, eschewed by the film version of Stephen King's novelette. But don't be fooled: RPN Productions' version is adapted directly from Frank Darabont's screenplay. For the most part, this works surprisingly well. Darabont's gentle, literary storytelling style, which seemed almost naively oldfangled onscreen, plays beautifully on the stage.

Unfortunately, in the hands of less skilled actors than Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman, this story of a falsely imprisoned man's long road to liberation sometimes becomes impossibly hokey. Michael Lee is perfectly adequate in the Robbins role, bringing to the stage an aloofness and sobriety necessary to suggest the ordered, meticulous intelligence of the character. Yet when the script requires him to spout dialogue such as "There's a place inside each of us that they can never take away--it's a place called hope," I cast my mind back to Robbins and wonder how he ever managed to spout such bunkum.

Additionally, some of the purely visual elements of the film cannot be re-created onstage. Lee's climactic prison break, for example, is staged by having the actor crawl through a half-dozen wheeled, caged platforms and then through the interlocked arms of his fellow prisoners, a symbolic staging of the event that feels like a failed Martha Graham dance routine. The best elements of the film, however, remain, in particular, Darabont's long diversions into the psychology of institutionalization, which lead to a minor character's suicide upon his release from prison. Performed as a monologue, this character's final letter is as sad and lonely onstage as it was onscreen--a redemption of the word onstage.

 
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