By Lynn Venhaus

Bright before me the signs implore me
To help the needy and show them the way
Human kindness is overflowing
And I think it’s going to rain today

  • Randy Newman, “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today,” 1968

As the gap between the haves and the have-nots keeps widening in America, August Wilson’s “Jitney,” the first play of his 10-play cycle in 10 decades of history, couldn’t be timelier.

The play, which is set in the 1970s in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, has lost none of its bite, and in the loving hands of The Black Rep, it is spellbinding. A richly textured tale of economic struggles, racial tensions, fathers, sons, hope, dreams, loss, strength, and the need for and meaning of community.

A jitney refers to an independently owned unlicensed car for hire. Because regular cab drivers did not service the Hill District, Wilson presented this urban renewal scenario for a makeshift gypsy cab service.

The city has decided to condemn the building, which threatens to eliminate Becker’s Car Service, and the owner frets about finances as the other characters have worries of their own. This lyrical production is powerful storytelling at its finest.

Wilson introduces us to the men who make a living driving these cabs as they sit around a dingy office waiting for the phone to ring – as well as the relatives and passengers who stop by.

The era vibrantly portrayed is after the Civil Rights Amendment, but segregation still exists, and the characters deal with those issues. Could home ownership even be possible? The soldiers who fought in Vietnam returned home (or not) with their own stories to tell.

These passionate souls have bonded – or avoided it – through their lives’ triumphs and travails. No one’s had it easy, and the world-weariness shows. But the hope for second chances is palpable.

Featuring a superb ensemble of actors who bring out distinctive characteristics that you won’t soon forget, “Jitney” is a powder-keg of emotions and the evergreen need for connection and kindness in a cold, cruel world.

As the former mill worker who has his share of problems, Kevin Brown gives a powerhouse performance, equal parts fire and compassion.

Becker is grappling with his shame over his son’s prison time for murder. Clarence “Booster” Becker was convicted for killing a white college girlfriend, who had accused him of rape after her father found out about their relationship. As the wayward son, Phillip Dixon offers a complex performance as he seeks to patch up his rift with his dad and a fresh start.

Another standout young actor, Olajuwon Davis, plays Vietnam veteran Darnell Williams, aka Youngblood, and you can feel his desire to realize the American Dream for his family as he works two jobs.

Alex Jay is memorable as Rena, his spunky pregnant girlfriend, and brings out the yearning to be part of middle-class society as they’re starting out, their lives in front of them, dreaming of bright futures.

The cast is enlivened by the dynamic of ace performers J. Samuel Davis, who plays Fielding, and Ron Himes, the director who was called to fill in as Turnbo a few days before the show began its run. Both titans in the local theater community, they are multiple winners and nominees of the St. Louis Theater Circle Awards, and their ease slipping into these roles is one of the joys of seeing them at work.

Fielding is a driver whose life has been marred by alcoholism and Turnbo, a cranky guy who knows it all, likes to stir up trouble.

Another bright spot is Edward Hill as Doub, a Korean War veteran who keeps it all together at the service.

Rounding out the cast is Robert A. Mitchell as Shealy, a local bookie who does not drive but spends his time there using the pay phone to run his numbers game, and Richard Harris as Philmore, as a hotel doorman who gets rides from the guys.

Director Himes capitalizes on Wilson’s ability to draw us into his world that is so vivid. The production is enhanced by spot-on music choices reflecting that era, an impeccably designed set by Harlan D. Penn, the always exquisite lighting design of Joseph W. Clapper and sharp sound design from Justin Schmitz. Jamie Bullins’ costume design shrewdly reflects the characters.

As Wilson chronicled African American life during the 20th century, we learned about specific journeys in a way that resonated universally. Call them ordinary people, but on stage, they create a stunning portrait of America – and they make a beautiful noise. All but one of his 10 plays are set in his hometown.

Because of the Black Rep’s unwavering commitment to Wilson’s plays, we St. Louisans have been fortunate to experience his Pittsburgh plays, or Century Cycle, in the highest quality possible.

These productions, now in the company’s second go-round, have enriched not only my theater-going but also my understanding of humanity. I look forward to the rest I have not seen.

Whether you have seen any or none, engage a ride with “Jitney” May 4-May 29.

The Black Repertory Theatre of St. Louis presents August Wilson’s “Jitney” May through May 29 at the Edison Theatre on the campus of Washington University in St. Louis. For tickets, visit
For more information, visit
www.theblackrep.org

By CB AdamsContributing Writer

During a weekend hyper-inflated with entertainments of mass
distraction – in particular, the Game of
Thrones series finale and the St. Louis Blues’ game of Stanley Cup – a
modest-sized audience was invited to engage with a deeper, more troubling, more
pressing and more prescient entertainment. Completing its 42nd
season, the Black Rep presented its production of Nina Simone: Four Women at the Edison Theatre on the Washington
University in St. Louis campus.

Set in the ruins of the 16th Street Baptist
Church in Birmingham after the 1963 bombing that killed four children, the play
earnestly, if unevenly, stands as a monument to the notion that everything old never
stops being new again. Playwright Christina Ham’s mash-up script attempts to
synthesize an array of social issues including, but not limited to, civil
rights, waning traditional religious values, the legacies and injustices of the
Old South and Jim Crow, adoption/abortion issues, culture and cultural
appropriation, white-on-black violence and intergenerational differences toward
sexuality and womanhood – all through the lens of Simone’s prickly personality
and her own artistic, personal and political frustrations.

Ham’s approach to this bomb-blast of issues is to sew its
many subjects into a large quilt rather than delve too deeply into any single patch
or two. In other words, a macro rather than micro approach. That’s a tall
order, especially when combined with a retrospective of Simone’s signature
songs and a presentation that’s equal parts concert, cabaret, revue and jukebox
musical, ala Mama Mia!. Ham’s conceit
seems to be: come for the Simone, stay for the social commentary.

At the heart of the play is one of Simone’s defining songs, “Mississippi Goddam.” And at the heart of that song are the lines, “Just try to do your very best / Stand up be counted with all the rest / For everybody knows about Mississippi goddam.”

This production, ably directed by Ron Himes, embodies that “do your very best” spirit while working through Ham’s something-for-everybody script. The four characters of the title are doing their best in their respective bad situations, each according to her experience, abilities and station in life.

The
four actresses playing those characters are the real strength of this
production. Maybe the conceit should be: come for the Simone, but definitely
stay for the performances of Leah Stewart as Simone, Denise Thimes as Sarah (aka
Auntie), Alex Jay as Sephronia and Camile “Cee” Sharp as Sweet Thing. Stewart
and Thimes make the most of their well-rounded characters. Sharp deserves extra
credit for her yeoman’s effort to animate the borderline one-dimensional
character of prostitute Sweet Thing. Scenic designer Tim Jones’s bombed-out
church set evocatively captures the devastation through which the characters
literally and metaphorically must move.

Impressive, too, and a testament to the strength of the St. Louis theater community, is that Stewart, Thimes and Jay are all natives of the Gateway City. Rounding out this exemplary local talent pool was a near-silent fifth character, the onstage piano accompanist, St. Louis native and musical director Charles Creath.

Cast of “Nina Simone: Four Women” Photo by Philip HamerThe script of Nina Simone: Four Women is too often clichéd (“walk a mile in my shoes”), too often expository in a biopic/Wikipedia sort of way (“It was my first top 10 hit”) and sometimes period-inappropriate (“skin in the game”). Yet, with the exception of a few flubbed lines, the actresses more than compensate for these shortcomings with their snappy timing, true heart and deep authenticity. And they soared and rose above the material individually and collectively performing “Old Jim Crow,” “Brown Baby” and “To Be Young Gifted and Black” and the other well-curated selections from Simone’s songbook.

The play seeks to make connections among the many issues it
touches and attempts to reach an epiphanic conclusion with the four characters
joining together for Simone’s song “Four Women.” The play’s wide-ranging reach
surpasses the ability of this one song to offer a satisfying resolution to the
issues it raises – but perhaps that point. It’s one woman’s (Simone herself) or
each character’s way of navigating a barrage of cultural adversities and finding
some meaning, strength and hope despite these challenges.

For this culmination, the attention instead should return to
“Mississippi Goddam.” Though the lyrics are relatively tame by modern urban
music’s standards, the anger is still palpable, real and relevant. It should
leave the audience realizing it’s not just Mississippi or Alabama goddam, but St.
Louis goddam and, yes, America goddam.

“Nina Simone: Four Women” plays at the Edison Theatre May 15-June 2. For tickets or more information, call the box office at 314-534-3807 or go online attheblackrep.org. A special $20 deal is available on Wednesday nights through the run.