If you can, find a moment during Jitney to listen to its rhythms rather than its words, its pulse rather than its plot. August Wilsonâs plays are so often described as musical that itâs almost redundant to repeat the point, but hereâs the thing: The alchemy of his poetic phrasing and beautifully knitted story lines canât be described as anything but symphonic. Portland Playhouseâs Jitneyâdirected by G. Valmont Thomas, itâs the companyâs fifth Wilson production and its first at the Winningstadâis 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 thatâs 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 âCar service!â But heâs haunted by the sins of his son, whoâs just been released after 20 years in prison. âSo what are you gonna do with the rest of your life now that you done ruined it?â Becker asks. Thatâs 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 kinksâthe tension can feel stagey, and the cast could give some exchanges more room to breatheâbut it still hears Wilsonâs 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.