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Review: American Stage offers slice of black life with August Wilson's 'Jitney'

Shifting back and forth between intense emotional drama and high comedy, August Wilson’s slice-of-life-and-cultural-history play “Jitney” takes the audience on an entertaining and insightful ride with some gypsy cabdrivers.

It’s a bittersweet journey, taking us back to a black community in the 1970s where “urban renewal” means tearing down things and lives.

The ride is punctured by laughter, bickering, love, personal tragedy, pride, shame, redemption and 1970s clothes, hair and mannerisms. It all comes to life in American Stage Theatre Company’s well-crafted production at Raymond James Theatre in St. Petersburg through Feb. 21.

This is American Stage’s ninth production from Wilson’s “American Century Cycle,” 10 plays about the black experience in Pittsburgh (a microcosm of the United States), each set in a different decade. American Stage is one of the few theater companies to take on the ambitious effort to showcase the world renowned playwright, who died in 2005.

“Jitney” director L. Peter Callender, the artistic director of the African-American Shakespeare Company in San Francisco and a veteran actor himself, has said the play is one of Wilson’s best works, with characters and dialogue comparable to Shakespeare’s work.

Under his guidance are some seasoned Wilson players, including several from California making American Stage debuts.

Written early in Wilson’s career, “Jitney” is set in the interior of a condemned building that houses an unlicensed cab company serving a black community where the white-owned licensed cabs won’t go. It’s a business forged from racism and black enterprise.

Scenic designer Scott Cooper turned the intimate stage into a dingy basement office with a simple desk, shop-worn furniture, a potbellied furnace and a pay phone that rings constantly with callers seeking rides.

Presiding over this operation is the quiet, hardworking, respected and proud Becker, played with dignity and power by Mujahid Abdul-Rashid, who has performed in six other Wilson plays. Abdul-Rashid has extensive acting credits, from San Diego to Portland, Oregon.

Cabbie boss Becker, who has carved out a decent life for himself, suffers from a bitter disappointment over his 39-year-old son, Booster, who returns after 20 years in prison for murder. Playing the proud-but-troubled Booster is Adrian Roberts, an experienced Shakespearian actor from California.

An unresolved conflict between father and son provides the play’s most dramatic moments, with both actors impressively carrying scenes where tempers rise with raw emotion.

The play’s humor and moments of tenderness come from the men and one woman who pass through the cabbie office. Foremost among the drivers is the grumpy, pain-in-the-you-know-what gossip Turnbo, played by the talented Kim Sullivan.

Sullivan, who has been in all the Wilson productions at American Stage, is fun to watch, and he turns in another outstanding performance here.

Also good in their roles are Satchel Andre, a recent MFA graduate from the University of Southern California, as the hotheaded youngest driver, Youngblood and Jazmine Pierce, from San Francisco, as Youngblood’s girlfriend, Rena. Their romance and their dreams offer the play’s hope for the future.

One-named actor “ranney,” who was in Wilson’s “Radio Golf” at American Stage this year, is solid as cabbie Doub, Becker’s likable friend and another voice of reason. Returning to American Stage is Ron Bobb-Semple. He makes the sad but likable alcoholic driver Fielding a sympathetic character.

Florida-based actors Josh Goff (20 years in the Tampa area) and Aaron Washington, most recently with Stageworks Theatre’s “Lights Rise on Grace,” get laughs as the dedicated hotel doorman Philmore (Goff) and the ladies’ man and numbers runner Shealy (Washington).

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