Congo Square sounds clarion call of August Wilson’s ‘Jitney’

SHARE Congo Square sounds clarion call of August Wilson’s ‘Jitney’

Malcolm Banks (from left), Willie B., Ernest Perry, Frederick Paul Williams and Anthony Irons in the Congo Square Theatre production of August Wilson’s “Jitney.” | Marcus Davis

In a fascinating recent radio story, a New York physician explained how many African-American men trust their barbers more than their primary care doctors, and how he wants to turn barbershops into a place where these men can access basic health care.

‘JITNEY’ Highly recommended When: Through Feb. 11 Where: Congo Square Theatre at the Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport Tickets: $35 Info: Run time: 2 hours and 45 minutes, with one intermission

The barbershop setting aside, this story came to mind as I watched Congo Square Theatre’s altogether electrifying revival of August Wilson’s play, “Jitney,” a tale of black men in a somewhat safe environment of their own. It’s a production that, along with many other things, has cornered the market on many of Chicago’s most gifted black actors, all of whom, in the opening moments of the show, walk on stage to form a frieze in which their facial expressions and body language capture their inner demons, outer style, resentments and intimacy.

The setting for “Jitney” — the 1970s era story in Wilson’s unrivaled 20th Century Cycle, which homes in on each decade of African-American life — is the Pittsburgh Hill District storefront that houses Becker’s Car Service, with its fleet of unlicensed taxi cabs that serve neighborhoods where most metered cabs will not go.

Lee Palmer (from left), Anthony Irons and Malcolm Banks in the Congo Square Theatre production of August Wilson’s “Jitney.” | Marcus Davis

Lee Palmer (from left), Anthony Irons and Malcolm Banks in the Congo Square Theatre production of August Wilson’s “Jitney.” | Marcus Davis

The Civil Rights movement of the ’60s has come and gone, and while some things have changed, many have remained the same. And the lives of the black men who gather in this dispatch center — a business run by a retired mill worker who has experienced great personal tragedy in his life — are still fraught with money issues. Small transactions are always in play, and as one of the men demonstrates with four crisp dollar bills, you can build a fine house of cards and then blow it away in a single breath. Not a bad metaphor for what happens when the city embarks on “urban renewal,” which often means a rundown neighborhood is bulldozed and then left fallow for years. (Not incidentally, Becker receives a notice of demolition along the way, although he delays sharing the news with his employees.)

While the routine at the cab company is set to a dependable beat — with calls coming in on a pay phone — each man in the play (and one crucial female character), has a story. And Wilson, a writer of great musicality, has each of them “sing” in a different key, with director Cheryl Lynn Bruce beautifully orchestrating her phenomenal actors’ virtuosic solo turns, duets and ensemble “arias” — tapping into both the synchrony and dissonance of it all, and periodically using brief but evocative jazz riffs. (Wilson’s taste ran to the blues, but this works ideally.)

Becker (Lee Palmer), is the disciplined businessman with influence, whose life was shattered 20 years earlier when his promising son, Booster (Ronald Conner), who was headed to college, got involved with a wealthy white woman and ended up spending 20 years in prison for a crime of passion — a fate that also destroyed his mother. Booster has now just been released from jail and, in the play’s most piercing moment, attempts to reconcile with his father.

The younger generation is embodied by Youngblood (Malcolm Banks), a Vietnam vet with a quick temper who is already married to the formidable Rena (Ramissa Ma’at), and is the father of a young son.

Several of the elders are resident philosophers in their own way: Fielding (Ernest Perry), once a gifted tailor, whose use of alcohol breaks the rules of the job; and Doub (Willie B.), a Korean War vet who thinks blaming everything on the white man is self-defeating.

At the core of all these lives is the attempt to maintain a level of pride and manhood that makes holding on and moving ahead possible. They may fight and bicker fiercely among themselves, yet they are all in a larger battle together.

From its inception, August Wilson, who died in 2005, was a fervent supporter of Congo Square. This production of “Jitney” does him proud, and once again serves as a reminder of his clarion voice.

Malcolm Banks plays Youngblood and Ramissa Ma’at is Rena in August Wilson’s play, “Jitney.” | Marcus Davis

Malcolm Banks plays Youngblood and Ramissa Ma’at is Rena in August Wilson’s play, “Jitney.” | Marcus Davis

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