Naima Dawson is a published author, Chicago playwright, and professor. Her career accomplishments cover more than 20 years in Arts Entertainment. Her Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Columbia College Chicago and her Master of Education from DePaul University solidifies her ability to bridge the two worlds between Arts and Education. She is the writer and producer of Your Call! Late Night Improv & Sketch Comedy for Grown Folks, as seen in production at the Apollo Theater and The Mercury Theater.
Pictured (l-r): Lee Palmer, Anthony Irons, and Malcom Banks. Photo by Marcus Davis.
By Naima Dawson
The Jitney cab service was quite prevalent in Chicago during my mother’s youth. It only commuted Blacks up and down South Park, known today as King Drive. The Jitney was the “rideshare” for the working class of my mom’s era because licensed taxi cabs wouldn’t come to the Southside, as it was deemed unsafe. She explained — one would flag a Jitney down and jump in with other passengers and tell the driver where you wanted to get off. Blacks have always been forced to use their ingenuity so that we can still exist with some form of normalcy when being left out of the equation.
Director Cheryl Lynn Bruce does a phenomenal job of evoking that history on stage in Congo Square’s 2018 season opener, August Wilson’s JITNEY. Almost forty years after its inception, JITNEY delivers a level of realism that remains greatly significant. The cast does a remarkable job at giving breath to disenfranchised Black men in America.
After the Korean and Vietnam war, Black vets had a hard time putting their lives back together, while other Black men just had a hard time finding stable employment. The Jitney, for many of them, became an alternative retirement plan until they could find a better way to make money.
Jim Becker (Lee Palmer), is the well-respected boss of a local unlicensed car service in Pittsburgh. For most of his life, Jim Becker has followed the rules carved out for him during his 27 years at the steel mill. Order to Becker means following the rules in hopes that his obedient behavior will allow him to provide a ‘good’ life for his family. However, his son Booster (Ronald L. Conner), who returns after serving 20 years for murdering a White woman, sees life through a very different lens. Palmer and Conner give a compelling delivery of that father and son dynamic, one that is strained by years of dreams snatched from Black families and Black men who were restricted from climbing up the social hierarchy and finding their place within the American Dream.
Becker’s drivers are mostly comprised of middle-aged Black men trying to survive America’s faulty blueprint. Fragile dreams and stability begin to falter as gentrification looms over Becker’s jitney station. In the struggle, there’s always humor, storytelling, and shenanigans nestled amongst the men in the station. There’s Turnbo (Anthony Irons), who is always meddling and tending to everyone’s business but his own. Irons delivers Turnbo’s petty ways with great authenticity and comicality. He will remind you of that one shady friend that you love and can’t stand at the same time. There is also Fielding (Ernest Perry), a driver who loves his liquor just a little too much. Perry immerses into his character, a humble alcoholic who is still in love with his ex-wife. He utters that timely humor often found in liquored up men with a story to tell. Both give great balance to the story’s heaviness.
In the thick of it all is Youngblood (Malcom Banks), who becomes the light of possibility to his elder’s failed dreams. Through his G.I. Bill, he has a chance to redraw the blueprint for generations to follow. Banks brings an energetic delivery to Youngblood — you are lured into his performance as you search to learn more. Banks is one to keep an eye on, as he continues to excel.
Congo Square’s JITNEY is a must-see. It reminds us that dreams are unpredictable and life can quickly take us on an unexpected journey.
JITNEY runs through February 11th. For more information visit athenaeumtheatre.org.