Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Albuquerque/Santa Fe

The Vortex Theatre
Review by Dean Yannias

Gene Corbin and Mack Leamon
Photo by Broken Chain
Jitney is the first play written by August Wilson in his Century/Pittsburgh cycle. He eventually wrote one play for each decade of the twentieth century, and nine of the ten plays are set in his hometown of Pittsburgh.

It's probable that when he wrote Jitney, he did not anticipate creating the full cycle. It's a contemporary slice of life play, set in the decade in which it was written, the 1970s. Later on, Wilson would look back to the earlier part of the century, but already he showed an amazing ear for the vernacular of working-class African Americans in Pittsburgh (or Chicago or Detroit or almost city in the Midwest). Not one word of dialogue sounds phony.

The setup, never explicitly stated, is that if you lived in a Black part of town and called Yellow Cab or Checker Cab, you could not expect that they would come to your house to pick you up. Instead, you would call a car service, so that drivers from your own neighborhood would pick you up in their own cars for a few bucks, functioning as an unlicensed taxi, or "jitney."

The play's main characters are the men hanging around the station waiting for calls to come in on the pay phone, asking for a ride. The "station" is one dilapidated room in a nearly deserted building on a block that is scheduled for demolition in the name of urban development. The expectation is that the block will indeed be knocked down, but there will be no development to follow.

The play is almost plotless, but unfailingly interesting. The kinds of things life throws at these people are what brings it to life. There is the retired mill worker/church deacon meeting his son again for the first time after the son has served twenty years in prison for murder. There is the Vietnam vet (father of a three-year-old) who is assumed to be having an affair with his girlfriend's sister because people have seen them riding in his car together. There is the nattily dressed alcoholic who used to be a tailor who made suits for Count Basie and Billy Eckstine (a Pittsburgh native, practically forgotten now, but one of my father's favorite singers). There is the gossipy guy who can't keep his mouth shut, and I don't know if he ever did anything else in his life. And there is the Korean War veteran who tries to convince the younger vet that he need not be held back because of his race, that you can accomplish anything in modern America. (Really?)

A few other characters pop into the station briefly. There's a guy who runs numbers using the station's phone. Rena, the mother of the three-year-old, has a couple of good scenes. But most of the play, apart from the excellent father-son confrontation, consists of the interplay among the drivers sitting around waiting for the phone to ring, and it's totally absorbing.

Angela Littleton, a fine actress, has assembled an amazing cast and crew, and has directed marvelously. It's a delight to see Albuquerque stalwart Gene Corbin back on stage, with his intrinsic gravitas. Marcus Ivey has been terrific in every role he undertakes. Darryl DeLoach has the most thankless role in this play, the gossip, and he acts it perfectly. Mack Leamon as the son who just got out of prison is making his Albuquerque debut, and it is most welcome. I hope he takes on other roles soon.

Nicee Wagner does well as Rena. Steven Higgins steals the stage in his brief scenes as the numbers runner. Finnie Coleman and Daniel Turner are actors who are new to me, but why? They are both very good and should be doing more theater. Dachary Vann lightens things up in his very short appearances.

You would think that a single set show like this would require almost no technical expertise, but I can't say enough about the sound design. The telephone rings at just the right time, and the music between scenes and on the stereo turns on and off exactly when it's supposed to. No sound designer or board operator is mentioned in the program. Maybe it's the technical director Riley Lewis who deserves the credit, or maybe it's stage manager Cynthia Thompson. The set design by Mattie Roos (constructed by Thane Kenny), costumes by Ayana Cole-Fletcher, lighting by Riley Lewis, and props by the estimable Claudia Mathes are all perfect.

August Wilson doesn't get done much in Albuquerque. This is a rare chance to see a good play of his that is wonderfully produced, directed and acted. Take advantage of the opportunity.

Jitney runs through March 24, 2024, at The Vortex Theatre, 2900 Carlisle Blvd NE, Albuquerque NM. Performances are Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 7:30, Sundays at 2:00. Saturday matinees at 2:00 on March 16 and 23. For tickets and information, please visit