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When blocks were condemned and razed to make way for a sports arena in the 1950s, more than 10,000 people were uprooted from Pittsburgh's lower Hill District. What had been a thriving community became a boarded-up no-man's-land.

Black community under siege in Jitney 

Taxi drivers

click to enlarge Connie McCoy and C. Delton Streeter in "Jitney" - PHOTO BY JASON FAGG

Jitney

Deep Dish Theater
Through May 23

The falling action has already been going on for some 20 years in Pittsburgh's Hill District when Darnell, dubbed Youngblood by his friends, says his first line in August Wilson's Jitney. By that time, the fine print of urban renewal had long since morphed into the handwriting on the wall for entire communities of lower- to middle-class African-Americans in the Iron City.

When blocks were condemned and razed to make way for a sports arena in the 1950s, more than 10,000 people were uprooted from the lower Hill District. In the process, what had been a thriving community became a boarded-up no-man's-land that malingered for years thereafter.

It's 1977 at the start of Wilson's play, and the city planners have targeted another region of land—if not its habitants—for redevelopment. The area includes the blocks where Becker, a retired steel mill worker, runs an unlicensed gypsy taxi stand that gives the play its title. Several other men make their living there: Youngblood, a Vietnam War veteran who's trying to start a family; Doub, a railroad pensioner; Fielding, a fading alcoholic; and a sanctimonious—and venomous—old gossip named Turnbo. Include Shealy in that count: a dapper numbers man who regularly uses the pay phone there to take down bets and make a few appointments on the side.

Their future is uncertain in this earliest installment of what would become Wilson's sprawling Pittsburgh cycle: 10 plays covering an African-American century, nine of them focused on this historic neighborhood. His characters have learned that in two weeks, the whole block's being closed down. Even if they can move their station beyond what promises to become another civic dead zone, the even grimmer truth is this: An inner-city ghost town needs no jitneys.

Wilson's script bristles with keen observations and an even keener intellect—graduate-level study in the university of the streets. But the playwright's empathy and deep-rooted connection with the characters' world keeps him from becoming preachy or aloof.

These qualities are fully reflected in this Deep Dish Theater production. Guest director Kathryn Hunter-Williams has tasked her nine strong actors to probe the humanity of their characters and resist the temptations of melodrama. When a desperate Fielding reverts to shuck and jive with Booster, the boss' son, toward play's end, the moment is allowed to hang there for an uncomfortable instant, an embarrassment between them. True, the numbers man flirts with caricature in the first scene—until we recall that such a man was indeed a larger than life character in Wilson's neighborhood: part entertainer, philanthropist and shrewd businessman rolled up in one. Thomasi McDonald's subsequent performance grounds the flash in something deeper.

John Rogers Harris delivers a notable turn as Doub, Becker's longtime business partner, a man whose compassion is fully informed by the neighborhood's grittier realities. C. Delton Streeter makes Turnbo an urban Pharisee of the first rank, who quotes scripture to reinforce his prejudices.

Dreams figure prominently in this script, but as possibly narcotic ideals that characters sift through as they assess their viability. Rena, Youngblood's lover (Connie McCoy), tells her man (a pensive Prince Bowie) that she loves him. Then she adds, "But love can only go so far. When we were in high school that was enough. ... That was everything. But it ain't everything no more." After brutal confrontations with his father, Booster (a crisp Mike Wiley) confides to Fielding that "dreams don't mean anything in this world. You could be the president or a bishop or something like that. You can dream you got more money than Rockefeller. See what happens when you wake up."

Even the clear-eyed, but bowed, Becker (Lester Hill) learns, very late, the bitterness of a dream deferred, when his son exacts a different sort of revenge on society than the one he once envisioned in redress for its injustice. As a slice of history and a social justice wake-up call, this production of Wilson's script is compelling.

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Is it fair to nitpick at the supporting actors in this play? The story is structured to highlight the devious …

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