If you can, find a moment during Jitney to listen to its rhythms rather than its words, its pulse rather than its plot. August Wilson’s plays are so often described as musical that it’s almost redundant to repeat the point, but here’s the thing: The alchemy of his poetic phrasing and beautifully knitted story lines can’t be described as anything but symphonic. Portland Playhouse’s Jitney—directed by G. Valmont Thomas, it’s the company’s fifth Wilson production and its first at the Winningstad—is a fine and frequently funny example of Wilson as both playwright and bandmaster. This installment of his 10-play Pittsburgh Cycle takes place in the 1970s of plaid bell-bottoms and colossal Afros, at the grubby-windowed office of a gypsy-cab company that’s about to be demolished. These unlicensed taxis are known as jitneys, and we meet their drivers, including the gossipy Turnbo (a scene-stealing Victor Mack) and the agitated Youngblood (Rodney Hicks), a 24-year-old who approaches life pelvis-first but is still pawing at what it means to be a man. Presiding over them, alternately a schoolmarm and a father figure, is Becker. Played with quiet authority and a heavy-shouldered gait by Oregon Shakespeare Festival veteran Kevin Kenerly, his rich bass voice only pitches up when he answers the phone with a lilting “Car service!” But he’s haunted by the sins of his son, who’s just been released after 20 years in prison. “So what are you gonna do with the rest of your life now that you done ruined it?” Becker asks. That’s not the only issue at play: Jitney also scratches at gentrification, the dangers of defeatism and the twinned complications of money and women. This production is working out its kinks—the tension can feel stagey, and the cast could give some exchanges more room to breathe—but it still hears Wilson’s harmonies.
SEE IT: Jitney is at the Winningstad Theatre, 1111 SW Broadway, 488-5822. 7:30 pm Wednesdays-Saturdays and 2 pm Sundays through Feb. 16. $32-$63.