There are some people who don't mind missing the opportunity to see Penumbra Theatre do an August Wilson play. Well, there are probably also people who wouldn't listen to Angela Hewitt playing Bach, or eat one of Buddy Valastro's cakes. Go figure.
Penumbra staged one of the very first productions of Jitney in 1985. Neglected until being revised and rediscovered a decade later, this eighth play in Wilson's "Century Cycle" has since been widely produced and is set to finally make its Broadway debut in January. New York director Ruben Santiago-Hudson will be hard-pressed to create a production as soulful and satisfying as Penumbra director Lou Bellamy's.
Before there was Uber, there were jitneys: unlicensed cabs that served African-American communities in cities like Detroit and Pittsburgh, where Wilson's play takes place circa 1977. Vicki Smith's deftly realized set puts us inside the well-worn headquarters of a car service run by Becker (James Craven), who provides both affordable transportation for his customers and employment opportunities for drivers who need the flexible, tax-free work. We meet the core group of those drivers, and learn their stories.
Youngblood (Darrick Mosley) is saving up for a house to surprise his girlfriend, Rena (Jasmine Hughes), who wonders what he's being so secretive about. Turnbo (Terry Bellamy) is the group's moralizing gossip. Fielding (Marcus Naylor) struggles with alcoholism, while Doub (Abdul Salaam El Razzac) is an older man who gets impatient with all the drama surrounding his co-workers. Some of that drama involves the boss: Becker's son Booster (James T. Alfred) has just been released from prison, and wants to reestablish a relationship with his dad.
The phone is constantly ringing, which is both a convenient dramatic device (it keeps the characters rotating) and a running gag. The show has a lot of fun with details, like the way Shealy, the local numbers guy (Kevin D. West), answers the phone with an ostentatious suaveness that matches his colorful suits, and the way Turnbo likes to pause for dramatic effect before announcing who a call is for.
That's typical of the loving attention to detail in this entire production, from the glorious period flair of Mathew LeFebvre's costumes to Sarah Brandner's authentic props. Lou Bellamy knows this setting, and he knows these characters. He's assembled a top-notch cast of actors who perform as a true ensemble, focusing on the relationships that are so integral to Wilson's storytelling.
In a lesser production, for example, Terry Bellamy (the director's brother) would completely steal the show with his mercurial Turnbo, pivoting from deadpan comedy to creepy innuendo to indignant rage. Here, though, he's kept aptly in check by the commanding Craven, whose quiet confidence conveys Becker's moral authority.
The show loses some momentum in the second half, in part due to a script that courts anticlimax by locating much of its dramatic heat in the first act, but this is such a fully realized world, we don't regret a moment we spend there.
IF YOU GO:
August Wilson's Jitney
270 N. Kent St., St. Paul
Through November 6